Interview: Big Finish director Ken Bentley

KB_5105Ken Bentley has become one of the most prolific directors on the various Big Finish stories: not only has he worked on the Doctor Who main range, but also The Companion Chronicles, The Lost Stories, Counter-Measures, Blake’s 7 and Sherlock Holmes. Away from audio, he has many stage credits, and has written stage and screen plays. Earlier this year, when his schedule calmed down briefly, he sat down for a long lunch beside the River Thames with Paul Simpson to discuss his work with Big Finish…

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How did you get involved with Big Finish in the first place?

speckledbandTo cut a short story long, I was at drama school with a guy who’s now a very good friend, who’s worked for Big Finish a number of times, called Andrew Dickens. The first job he did was the rep season at Nottingham, where he met Nick Briggs. About twelve years ago, somebody we knew at drama school was running a theatre and asked if we’d be interested in doing a show for them. I was chatting to Dickens about what we could do, and we discovered that Arthur Conan Doyle had adapted one of his Sherlock Holmes stories into a play. Most are adapted by other people, but he did The Speckled Band himself. That got us excited – and it’s great. It’s not without its complications, with a big cast but we found ingenious ways to double up. We were thinking about who to play Holmes, and Dickens said he’d just worked with this guy who’d be fantastic. We talked to Nick, who was interested. It all went very well.

Nick and I stayed in touch as drinking buddies, but didn’t work together again. Then he phoned up out of the blue and said he’d just been given a new job as executive producer making audio plays of Doctor Who. Did I fancy doing some? I’d never done any audio before; we’re always being asked to do things that are slightly outside of our comfort zone, and I have done all my career. I said, “I’d love to, but you know I’ve not done any before. Am I the right person for the job?” He said, “Do you think I’d ask if I didn’t think so?”

So I came in and saw a couple of productions through – sat in the studio, was copied into the post-production emails and the edits – and then eventually they threw me in at the deep end and gave me one. And I’ve not looked back; I did about six in the first year, which I thought would be great. In my second year, it was just after the Lost Stories peaked, I did twenty-five. That was the busiest, but since then it’s been endless right up until now (August). It’s been fantastic, so much fun.

deathcollectors_cover_largeThere’s a good core of actors in the Big Finish productions.

We constantly try to get that balance right, try not to just keep using the same people because we enjoy working with them. We always try to make sure when we cast someone, it’s because they can bring something to that role. I think it’s so important to have a small number of people who know what we’re doing in the studio each time, because new people settle in much more quickly that way.

How much genning up on Doctor Who did you do, or would you rather work from what the script gives you?

I’m very text-based as a director anyway. For me, it has to come from the script. I rely, not through laziness or being stubborn, on what everybody else is bringing to the process. On that basis, I trust them, and then they can trust me to bring what I can to the process. I rely on the writers. Each story goes through such a massive process with Alan looking at the long arc, so I trust them to load everything into the story that needs loading in.

If it’s important I’m not going to miss it, because they will have made it clear in the writing that it’s important and it links to something else. I also trust and rely very much on the cast – let’s face it, the Doctors and the companions have been doing this for decades! They know these characters inside out. They don’t need me coming in and saying, “I think you should do it like that.”

I work very collaboratively anyway. I like having the writers in the studio during the recording, hearing from them and trying to make sure they’re happy. I’m perfectly happy for them to chip in if they think something is missing, or has not been clarified – indeed as sometimes happens, because we all want this to be the best it can be, we’ll all make amends and new decisions as we go. What’s lovely is to hear the cast say, “I wouldn’t say it like that”, or even, sometimes as they do, they spot something within the chronology of the Who-niverse and say “When I was in that story, I didn’t say that” or what have you. It works a treat. It’s a wonderful, positive collaborative atmosphere.

demons-of-red-lodge-the-cover_jpg_cover_largeNick has a lovely turn of phrase: Doctor Who is part of his DNA. It’s very much not in mine. But what I have done since I’ve been working on them is absorb an enormous amount. When you’re as deeply embedded in it as I have been over the last couple of years, you absorb a lot very, very quickly. But I do quite like taking a step back so I can say, “That’s all very well, but ultimately what we’re doing here is telling a story to a group of listeners and it’s got to be entertaining.”

And the show contradicted itself…

This is something the guys are telling me: it was always doing that.

Which period of Doctor Who do you find most challenging to work in?

That’s a fascinating question. They are different but I almost don’t think about the era of the show when I’m working on them. Partly it’s that “shared responsibility” excuse – I know the writers have had that very much in mind when they’re writing, and the sound designers are very good at sourcing or creating effects that are true to the era. With regards to the main range, I read these stories and I think “there’s no way they could have done these on telly.” We’re telling stories and doing things that they would have ruled out in the first script meeting because they knew they couldn’t achieve it. So on that basis, I can’t sit here with this story and think how would they have done it then, because they wouldn’t have done it then.

Recorded-Time-coverWhat I’ve always focused on – and it sounds like an excuse I keep trotting out – is the script. I always go back to the script. My primary consideration is the audience. My focus is, “Am I telling this story that I have been handed in the most entertaining way possible for the listener?” That’s my concern: we tie it all together and make it as exciting and enjoyable as possible, so when people buy it, they’ve got something that’s as much value as possible. I’d rather people said, “Fine, maybe that was one of the most exciting stories I’ve listened to, but it wasn’t authentic to the period”, rather than “That was really authentic, but, my god…”

The three initial Big Finish Doctors all came from the same period so there was a certain homogeneity anyway…

When I’ve talked to them about the role and what they’re trying to do, they see Big Finish as a chance to continue their work, rather than recreating what they were doing at the time.

Peter is probably the one who is the most authentic to his telly Doctor; Colin has talked about the fact that he wants to push the character in new directions, and try different things. Sylvester, when we’ve had conversations about things coming up and stories he might be interested in doing, he’s very enthusiastic about exploring the character in different ways.

the-hobbit-radagastWith the most recent Sylvester trilogy, where he wasn’t around as much because of his commitments filming The Hobbit, was consideration ever given to holding off from having stories with him in?

I don’t know, to be honest. I come into the process fairly late, from that point of view. They talk to me about what’s going on when scripts are getting towards final draft. I don’t think they moved him from the usual place in the cycle – we recorded them when we usually do them.

I’m speculating here, but The Hobbit was going to be a very big commitment and quite random. It would be very difficult for us to know when they would want him, so whatever we tried to do to coordinate it, we would have ended up worse. It was better to sort out what we could do to make them work.

Of all the Doctors for it to happen to, it sort of works best with him because he’s very well known for travelling solo, and also for being behind the scenes manipulating things, so having him not there, but doing that, makes a lot of sense. All the writers have been very clever in their use of him, given the restriction, but once you know what you are dealing with, you find a creative way of using it, rather than getting around it, to serve your story.

Protect and Survive coverHe managed to make it along to the recordings. I don’t think I was fully aware so much at the time how little he was in the stories: I was aware, because what we managed to do, which was unusual, was only to have to ask him for one day of recording rather than the usual two.

The writers are more used to creating stories that feature the Doctor without him necessarily being there – some of the Companion Chronicles, for example – and the audience is more used to a Doctor-lite episode nowadays.

I did read online somewhere somebody had said Protect and Survive was a bit of a cheat, it felt more like a Companion Chronicle than a main range story.

That is a very clever story.

It’s probably my favourite of Jonny [Morris]’s. Really lovely stuff. My background is theatre, so I quite like those very claustrophobic self-contained stories. I’m used to that world – in theatre that’s what writers are always trying to achieve.

[Click here for part 2 of the interview, in which Ken talks about Counter-Measures, The Lost Stories, Blake’s 7 and Sherlock Holmes…]

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