In an exclusive three-part interview with Blogtor Who, Nicholas Briggs looks back on 10 years as Executive Producer of Big Finish audios. He reflects on his career, his work as the voice of various Doctor Who monsters and of course, Big Finish.
In Part One, Nicholas Briggs recalls his beginnings on the Myth Makers series, encounters with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. And how those interviews shaped his relationships with actors today…
Nicholas Briggs – Myth Maker Beginnings
Nicholas Briggs played a future incarnation of the Doctor in fan-made audio stories during the mid-1980’s and into the 1990’s. Audio Visuals were, however, unlicensed, unlike the subsequent company Big Finish, and had a limited distribution.
Briggs gained more exposure by the more widely produced Myth Makers videos. These releases featured interviews with numerous individuals who had been involved with Doctor Who.
Susan Hewitt: I was going through past work – starting from the beginning. Would you say the Myth Makers began everything?
Nicholas Briggs: Yes, I suppose so. I was doing the Doctor Who audio plays with me playing the Doctor, Audio Visuals. But yeah, I suppose that was the first thing I was getting paid for.
‘Myth Makers’ was a series of interviews produced by Reeltime Pictures, an independent company founded by Keith Barnfather. Presented by Nicholas Briggs, the videos would feature in-depth interviews with cast and crew from Doctor Who and have since been re-released on DVD.
SH: You talked to nearly everybody who was anybody in Doctor Who. But who did you miss? Who would you have liked to have talked to that you never got to?
NB: We never got round to Peter Davison, for some reason. We’ve never done a Myth Makers with Paul McGann. And I’m very, very sorry that we were too late and missed Patrick Troughton because he’s my favourite Doctor.
SH: Did you ever get the chance to meet him?
NB: I once put my hand up at a convention to ask him a stupid question at the Longleat convention [in 1983]. I asked him if they sneakily took his trousers in over the course of his episodes because he wanted the trousers to be big and baggy. I think the director Morris Barry said they snuck them in episode by episode. And funnily enough, when I asked him that question, he said, “Yes, Morris Barry likes to tell that story.”
I’ve been reminded of this because Keith Barnfather made a video about the Longleat convention. I told my anecdote in an interview and lo and behold, they’ve actually got footage of it being asked. You can’t see me, but you can hear me, and they’ve got Patrick Troughton answering. It’s really weird, to see something that you’ve told people about for years and years, and you’re worried that it’s not going to be quite the same as you told it.
SH: We all remember things differently, after all, the memory cheats as JNT said.
NB: One of the things that I didn’t remember, which is utterly cringe-making, is that Patrick had a bit of trouble hearing what people were saying when they were asking questions. I remember the whole panel was quite awkward because he himself was quite awkward and shy on stage, funnily enough.
I remember being able to see his feet below the table, and I don’t think he realised that the audience could see his feet. They were constantly twisting around with nerves and awkwardness. I think this may have been the first time he’d done something like this because he’d been persuaded into it by John Nathan-Turner.
Anyway, I spoke out very loudly — I was at drama school at the time — and he said “Oh, at last! Someone I can hear!”, or something like that. You can see it on the DVD; I’m probably misquoting it. And I, in such a pompously young actor voice, said [in a pretentious tone], “Yes, that’s right, I’m at drama school.” [laughs] “Training to be an actor.”
But I did notice that it was becoming irritating for him that he couldn’t hear anyone, so I did my best projection when I asked the question. So it was delightful for me. It was a shame that we didn’t get him, but we got loads of other good people, like Jon Pertwee.
SH: Jon Pertwee of course, made an appearance in ‘Myth Runner’ swearing that he’d never appear in a Myth Makers interview.
‘Myth Runner’ was a special release built around a ‘Blade Runner’ inspired plot device to present the outtakes and bloopers from the Myth Makers interviews as Briggs explains;
NB: I used to do other work for Keith Barnfather, and bless Keith, I was very unemployed in those days and he used to employ me as a driver and a PA. So I got to drive all sorts of lovely cars, go around the country and stay in lovely hotels. And in our down time, we started filming these sketches.
I wrote a whole big script because of course, I wanted to be a film director, actor, God-knows-what. We found we were spending more and more time trying to get these sketches done. We’d be driving along, and I’d have sketches written for non-specific locations, and we’d drive past somewhere and say, “That looks brilliant. Stop, pull over.” And we filmed in all sorts of strange historical monuments and things.
So we made a big thing of this nonsense of a story of the Myth Runner android being an interviewer of the future, and it was going around killing people. It was like a robot double of me. It made no sense whatsoever. But we had loads of fun doing it.
SH: But ‘Blade Runner’ provided your inspiration?
NB: We felt we had to base it on ‘Blade Runner’, it was a hugely important film. When it came out it was in the days before video and there was that fear of never being able to see it again. I remember I saw it twice in one week.
When you watch ‘Blade Runner’, if you’ve ever heard or seen any of my work, you can see that I was heavily influenced by it. A lot of the stuff in ‘Blade Runner’ is like a baseline assumption of my work. Characterise that however you wish. Also ‘Alien’ was pretty much the same actually.
It’s interesting, I remember a friend of mine from school always used to say, in his opinion, and I think it’s quite fun to think this, “While ‘Blade Runner’ was what was happening on Earth, ‘Alien’ was what was happening in space.” I know technically the dates don’t tie up, but it’s the same feel, and unsurprisingly it’s the same director. But yes, very odd films, to me.
SH: How did you find interviewing people?
NB: Myth Makers gave me an outlet for performance that I wasn’t getting otherwise. And it was all actually very valuable experience in front of a camera. But I had no one to really teach me.
Doing interviews is quite a specific thing, and I’d been trained to be an actor — it’s not quite the same thing. So I was learning on the job, and I find most of it quite cringe-making to look back at.
SH: Despite what Jon Pertwee had said on ‘Myth Runner’ you did get to interview him at some point did you not?
NB: Yes, that’s right. The interview with Jon Pertwee was quite pivotal for me because it was a terrible experience. I have huge admiration for him as an actor, and I thought he was a brilliant Doctor Who. His performance as The Doctor was the best performance he ever gave, and I mean that in a really good way. It does bear a lot of re-watching, which I’ve done recently, not least because we’re doing these 3rd Doctor stories with Tim Treloar playing the 3rd Doctor. So I wanted to be aware of all the “Pertwee-ness”, and I think it’s just brilliant what he does in it.
SH: How was Pertwee to interview?
NB: All those funny little rumours you hear about how difficult he could be, I got sort of a condensed form of them. I’m quite flattered that he was always aware of me. He’d been introduced to me at some point in a convention and he always remembered my name. But I was terrified of him, there was something about him that terrified me. And I would say about the worst thing you could do with Jon Pertwee was be terrified of him because he had no time for it or sympathy for it. So the more nervous you were, the more aggressive and difficult he became.
I observed other people, Keith Barnfather for example. Keith had very very bad eyesight, but has had surgery and stuff since and his eyesight is massively improved. But back then, the world to Keith was always out of focus, so a lot of the time he didn’t pick up the subtlety of expression on people’s faces.
Jon Pertwee had a way of looking at you — it was like laser beams to the back of your eyes, and Keith couldn’t see this. So I could see Keith dealing with Jon, and I could see Pertwee giving him the look that said, “You better shut up, or these lasers in my eyes are going to activate and dissolve you.” Keith never saw this and just carried on. Because his aggressive look was having no effect, I could see Pertwee getting more respect for Keith. I could see him thinking, “Well, fair enough.” And that’s what I’ve not got. Keith and I have spoken about this and laughed. Keith said “No, I never saw it. I never saw the look.” And I said, “I know you didn’t, because if you had done, you would have stopped in your tracks.” He did have that way about him.
SH: So how was the experience of interviewing Jon Pertwee?
NB: Jon, while I was doing the interview, treated me almost as if I wasn’t there. For the sake of the take he would talk to me, but the moment the camera quit rolling he would talk over my head to Keith Barnfather. Gary Russell actually directed most of it, if not all of that particular interview, and he didn’t speak to Gary much either. He spoke to Keith, he spoke to who he perceived was the top man, the man who wasn’t intimidated by him. The rest of us were all, really, scared to death. If he thought my question was no good, he’d just interrupt me: “No, no, no, that’s no good. I want to talk about this, this and this.” So the whole thing was a really demoralising experience for me. It left me, in a rather petulant way, not liking him at all. But it turned out fine in the edit.
SH: You came to like him again?
NB: As I emphasise, I do think he was a great man, and I’m always touched by the story that I’ve heard Barry Letts tell about how when Jon Pertwee was a drama student he was expecting his father to come to see a performance and he saw him through the curtain. But he wasn’t there at the end of the play and his father told him he hadn’t come to see it. Barry Letts remembering that there were tears in Jon Pertwee’s eyes, a man of 50-something, telling him this story after all these years since his childhood. I think it’s very telling about him — I mean I don’t wish to presume to psycho-analyse him — but I think in that story which Barry Letts tells, is something of the core of Jon Pertwee.
SH: How about the other interviewing experiences with the Doctors?
NB: I had the opposite experience with Colin Baker, who treated me like I knew what I was doing. Which I think, in truth, was not the case [laughs]. But that helped raise my confidence. He said, “Well, you’re doing the interview. It’s fine.”
He was delightful to me, and extremely supportive and extremely complimentary, and I really turned the corner on his. There’s a big change to my mind, the way I remember, a big change in the interviews from then onwards because then I felt like I did know what I was doing, because he told me I knew and I believed him. He told me in a very convincing way.
SH: Sounds like a much more enjoyable experience?
NB: We had a fantastic time as well. Colin was so generous, and we’ve been friends ever since really. Of all the Doctors, although I know them all through work, and have become quite friendly with them all, Colin is the one who I could just pick up the phone to and talk to him about something entirely unrelated, just to get his advice or something. I don’t do it often but we can talk. If there are any issues with Big Finish, he, and possibly Sylvester, but I do know Colin a bit better, I can just chat to them.
SH: So Myth Makers really helped shape those relationships you now have professionally with Big Finish?
NB: Definitely. By the time we started doing Big Finish I already knew Colin really well. He’d already really helped my career. A lot of the actors I interviewed at Myth Makers would say, “You’re an actor? You should be.” And I’d say “Well, I’d given up”, and they’d say “Oh no, I can help you”, but no one ever did. And Colin said it and did help me, he got me a theatre job and got me back into acting. Which is what I remind him of when he has a friendly dig at me, if my autograph queue is slightly longer than his, or something. I’ll say, “Well I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, Colin.” I would have left acting entirely and none of this would have ever come about. He doesn’t quite believe me but he really is the reason that I am where I am today.
SH: The affection you have for him was apparent in the Doctor Who magazine interview you did with Colin. I thought that worked quite well.
In September 2015 Doctor Who Magazine Issue 489 published an interview with Colin Baker which he agreed to have with Nicholas Briggs. Baker had declined approaches from the publication in the past.
NB: Yeah, he did ask for me to do the interview because of our friendship. I’m always wary because I am a Doctor Who fan, of looking as though I’m trying to claim that these people are my best buddies. In the notes inside the CD interview we did with Colin for Big Finish, I did say that, “He’s not my bosom buddy. I don’t want to claim that we are.” But he does trust me, because he knows if there’s anything that concerns him he can just phone me or arrange to meet me or whatever, and we can just have a proper conversation about it.
SH: And this all comes from that Myth Makers interview with him? Any others?
NB: The brilliant thing that happened after Colin Baker’s Myth Makers, and I’m pretty certain that it was after his, is that I then did one with Sophie Aldred, and Sophie’s the same age as me. We instantly had the peer familiarity, and the confidence that Colin had given me was built upon immeasurably by Sophie’s relaxed attitude. Sophie and I have always been chums since then.
In Part Two of our exclusive interview with Nicholas Briggs, he discusses some of his acting roles and his work as the voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen…
Interview by Susan Hewitt, Article by Bedwyr Gullidge.
Many Thanks to Nick Briggs and Keith Barnfather at Reeltime Pictures Ltd for the generous use of the photographs.