Thursday, January 26, 2012

The (Re)Making of A Doctor Who Classic

GUEST article author: Neil Gardner

"How lovely it is when the actor recognises that you, as producer, have an equal role in creating the product... makes you feel included somehow..."

A few weeks ago, across a 3-day weekend, I teased many people on Twitter and Facebook that I was off to deepest, darkest Oxfordshire to record a major new Doctor Who audiobook for the lovely folk at AudioGO. What I didn't (and couldn't) say at the time was WHICH DW classic I was producing and WHO the reader was. Well, friends, the muzzle has been removed and I can tell you everything.

As any good Doctor Who fan knows, back in the 1980s there were occasional problems that hit the show, one of the biggest was a strike by the electricians, which sadly put paid to a Tom Baker serial known to the world as SHADA. Written by the incredible Douglas Adams, the show was part filmed, but it couldn't be completed and so ended up on the BBC scrapheap. It was later revived on VHS with the existing episodes and some new Tom Baker voiceover, plus a rather nice little script book. Later still, the top chaps at Big Finish made a fantastic audio version. And in 2012, BBC Books are releasing the complete "Doctor Who: Shada... the lost adventure by Douglas Adams" as written, and completed, by top Who scribe Gareth Roberts.

When I first heard the news of this book being released, back sometime in 2011, I immediately got in touch with AudioGO DW commissioning editor Michael Stevens and BEGGED to be allowed to produce it. For so many reasons this is such an important DW book for me. First it is a key piece of Who history, second it is a key piece of Tom Baker history, third it was written by Douglas Adams (my literary hero) and fourth... well... it is such a massive release, and I am an anorak for this sort of thing!

And then, about a month ago, I got the email asking me to produce the book as audio...but there was a rider... it had to be recorded at a specific studio in the Oxfordshire countryside. Normally I get to do anything that needs recording in London, or sometimes Manchester or Birmingham. So why this studio I'd not heard of in the lovely countryside? Hmmm. OK, so I rang the studio, got it booked and sorted...we would have to record over a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday as the reader only had those 4 days free. Fine and dandy. "So who is reading it?" Mickie the studio owner asked. Good question.

The next email arrived from AudioGO and you had to pick my jaw up off the floor. The reader was going to be, none other than the Lady Romana herself... LALLA WARD! Aaarggh, uurgh, oooooh. Lalla Ward... alongside Lis Sladen, she was MY companion, and even more exciting she was the companion of MY Doctor. Well, blimey. This job was turning out to be better and better.

Admittedly the thought of a 2.5hr journey from Croydon, through rush hour traffic to Oxfordshire... and then back again in the evening, didn't thrill me. But this was ROMANA! Reading SHADA! Not only had she been Mrs Tom Baker, but she had been close friends with Douglas Adams. What an opportunity to meet and work with such an influential character in my life.

So that was that. The job was on. I had the hefty script (almost 500 pages long) and a week or so until the recording. "Oh, Neil," comes the email from Michael, "could you call Lalla and just check everything is OK with her and the script?" Er...... CALL LALLA WARD?! Aaaaaaaargrgghhggghhhghg (I see now where Douglas got some of those great alien names from... hitting random keys on the keyboard can be very creative).

I am not prone to nervousness around famous actors, we are all just doing a job and mine is to help them do theirs, and keep the gig going smoothly and technically on spec. But for some reason, just as when I first met Tom, or first worked with Lis, the idea of chatting to Lalla filled me with butterflies. But of course, she was lovely, friendly, utterly professional and a real joy to talk with. She apologised for making me come all the way up to the Oxfordshire countryside, but explained that she had used that studio a lot recording other audiobooks and that she was due to fly off on a trip the day after recording ended, so being near to home was important. How lovely it is when the actor recognises that you, as producer, have an equal role in creating the product... makes you feel included somehow.

And so the fateful morning arrived. I was up at 5am and put together my kit - iPad with pdf script, additional lines to record for promo stuff, USB stick x 5 plus portable hard drive, a load of medicine (since I was rather under the weather at the time), mobile phones, wallet & money for petrol, and the must-have Sat-Nav. Bag bulging, hat on head, I kissed goodbye to Tanja and headed off at 6.30 to drive through Central London then head out west on the A40 and M40. Unusually for a Friday morning the traffic was clear, and I got a great run down the motorway (listening to some Doctor Who audiobooks as I went... of course!) I was soon wending my way through beautiful Oxfordshire villages, such as Woodstock. And before you knew it, I was there, parked outside this rural studio in a tiny village. Very idyllic, and very unusual.

"Please close the gate quickly... two very fast dogs live here" announced the garden gate. Fair enough, Lalla had warned me about the studio doggies and their love of escaping into the fields. And then, before I knew it, I was inside this beautiful country cottage, a grinning Mickie and his lovely wife greeting me, and Lalla Ward surrounded by bouncy dogs, sitting with a cup of tea in the kitchen. And so began 3 days (not 4, Lalla was too good a reader to need 4 days!) of rural recording bliss. We had a lot of fun in those sessions. Tea breaks were a chance to talk about the life, universe and everything. I learned about Douglas, and Doctor Who...about Queen and dog training... and we nattered like old gossips. It was a fabulous time. It is also the only studio I've ever worked in where you have to pause every now and again because of the sound of horses clopping past outside. No matter how good your sound proofing, those hoofs make a noise!

So far, all good. Long days but lots of fun. We were all loving the book...such a brilliant piece of writing. We were racing through the script, everything was sounding good, Lalla was happy and we were all relaxed. As we came to a close on Saturday evening, we knew that we only needed 4 hours to record on Sunday to complete the job. This meant, Mickie suggested, that we could finish by 2pm and have a nice country pub roast lunch together. Oooh, now THAT sounded nice. So far we had spent Friday and Saturday lunchtimes in the nearby pub, enjoying some extremely tasty food...and having a great laugh swapping various life stories. But a Sunday lunch with Lalla Ward, now that would be special for a Whovian. I asked if Tanja could come up and join us on Sunday, which was received with a wonderful warmth and excitement.

And then Lalla dropped the bomb... she would, hopefully, be bringing her husband along for the recording AND for lunch. Her husband. Richard. RICHARD DAWKINS! He is my real-life hero. Away from characters in books and film, and those incredible people who work in the emergency services (and who should, in my opinion be given massive pay rises and/or tax breaks), Richard Dawkins is the person I have always most wanted to meet. As an atheist and secularist he is, of course, incredibly important to me as a writer, thinker and exponent of free thought and questioning the status quo. But away from the controversial side of life, his work as an evolutionary biologist, academic, teacher and author has inspired me, educated me and illuminated my life. Yes, I am a Richard Dawkins fan... I just wished I had my old "Richard Dawkins is my God" t-shirt to wear!

And so came along one of those days in your life that you just can't quite believe is happening. Tanja and I arrived at the studio early morning, and there was Lalla, and in steps Richard with their own cute little dog. Yes, I was in awe for a moment. But we quickly got to work, and 4 hrs of recording later it was time for our lunch.

At the pub I sat next to Richard and had a wonderful chat about biology, evolution, religion, TV, audiobooks, Doctor Who... never have I felt (a) so much like a pig in doodah and (b) so woefully uneducated... the man is a behemoth in the brains department. Everyone at the table, including Mickie and his wife and daughter, Tanja and Lalla, joined in the free flowing conversation. And the roast dinner was a bit nom nom too! I even got to ask Richard the joke question I had always said to people I would ask him if I got the chance. Oh yes. I asked Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, what sound does a giraffe make.......... which led to a hilarious chat about exactly what noise DOES a giraffe make, how its vocal system had evolved, etc... Pig in doodah, I am telling you... that was me!

And so, lunch finished, we headed back to the studio to complete a few final pages, take a few piccies (as seen here) and for me to get Richard to sign my copy of The God Delusion (well, I had to, didn't I?) It had been an incredible few days in the company of some fascinating people. Working with Lalla was a joy, and I hope very much to record more audio with her soon. I've already got a few ideas up my sleeve, and I also hope AudioGO will use her for some other audiobooks as well. Heading home, Tanja and I were happy smiley people, ready to tackle the editing that lay ahead of us.

And so, here we are, a couple of weeks on. The editing has been completed and all the audio files are with ace composer Simon Power for some atmos/musical magic to be added. As well as Lalla reading, and Simon's score, John Leeson has returned as the voice of K9, which really adds to the Tom Baker-era feel of the piece.  Shada is an outstanding piece of writing which Gareth can be extremely proud of (as a Tom-era Whovian I was overjoyed at how the story was completed) and I am sure that you will enjoy Lalla's wonderful reading of the book, and understand that creating this audiobook was a real joy and pleasure for me (and Tanja).

Isn't Doctor Who fantastic, eh?

Doctor Who: Shada the audiobook is published by AudioGO Ltd, and released on 8th March 2012 as a 10 CD set and download.