Interview: Big Finish writer & script editor John Dorney
If you’ve been listening to the CD extras on recent Big Finish releases, you’ll have heard a lot of praise directed at John Dorney, actor, writer and script editor, who has had major input into a number of the company’s ranges over the past few years. Shortly after the release of the Counter-Measures Box Set (reviews starting here) he spoke to Paul Simpson about working on the various different stories, and drops some hints about the future for the Counter-Measures team. [NB there are some mild spoilers for later stories in the first season.]

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How did you get caught up writing and editing for Big Finish?

I’ve always been a writer; I had a background in writing plays when I was at drama school and regular school, and kept writing scripts afterwards. As far as working for Big Finish, it was largely me plugging away until they let me in.

I pitched a few stories when they had an open submissions period back in 2003, none of which got made. But you never want to waste a good idea, so I retooled a few of them and got in touch with Nigel Fairs and asked if I could pitch them as Tomorrow People stories, which obviously never happened. That led to me doing Sapphire and Steel.

David Richardson liked that and asked me to do a couple of Companion Chronicles, one of which was Solitaire which became quite big. I think he felt that I’d got good instincts for stories, and the dramatic beats, which is quite a key aspect: the ability to tell a story isn’t as useful as the ability to tell a story dramatically. I had a good idea for making things as dramatic as possible. He asked me to work as script editor on series three of The Lost Stories, which we’re just coming to the end of at the moment. We had a good relationship on that so he asked me back to do other script editing duties – Counter-Measures and the occasional other release from other ranges.

I did some of the Tom Baker stories: there’s a slightly bizarre split due to the heavy workload of it. A lot of them are the brilliant Johnny Morris, and we split them up between us: he script edited me, I script edited him and there are others where the demarcation points are a bit blurred – and you get notes from Ken [Bentley] and the other directors as well. It’s quite collaborative.

Which series has been the most challenging to write?

I think Counter-Measures is an interesting one for that. There’s a degree to which Jago & Litefoot is in an almost-pastiche Victoriana, rather than a real one. Counter-Measures is within living memory for quite a lot of people, and is still very real and very connected to us. I suppose that meant I had to deal with the real world: I don’t necessarily set most of my stories in the real world. It’s aiming for quite a straightforward brutality in a weird way.

I was a bit disappointed to find out a bit late in the day what Matt Fitton had been doing as a technique for writing the script: watching old season three episodes of The Avengers, which was quite brilliant for getting yourself into the right mind set. My marker point was Nigel Kneale as a style guide, and most specifically the style of TV in that period: it has a faintly old-fashioned feel.

There’s a cinema verité feel to it as well: the first episode of each of the original Quatermass scripts from the 1950s reads initially like a Play for Today

Absolutely. We wanted to have a vaguely talky quality, which sounds odd, because all audio drama has a talky quality, but it’s got that feel to it.

With everything else I’ve done for Big Finish, I’ve been coming in late to another series that already exists: I know Doctor Who, Jago & Litefoot I was commissioned to write roughly during the second season, before the first had come out. The Tom Bakers are clear; there’s a degree of experimentation with the Lost Stories but not much. Counter-Measures has been largely about discovering the series and how it works, as a group: I’ve never been involved in the creation of a series before. It’s the ground-up ones that are the most challenging.

Do you feel constrained to tying in to real history, or are you rewriting the history of the 1960s?

I think it’s most clear with State of Emergency that there’s a faintly fictionalised quality. It has to take place in a heightened universe, and within its own rules.

I don’t think it’s to the same extreme degree as Jago & Litefoot is: it’s taking the lead from the stories the characters came from. There’s a quasi-realism to Remembrance, a straightforward quality to it. There’s a degree to which it plays up the iconography of the 1960s –  [the sign Ace sees in the window:] “No Coloureds” and all that, just to remind you it’s in the 1960s.

Counter-Measures is its own world in the event of us needing it to be. There was an initial idea for a story in series two, which isn’t going to happen, where there was going to be a proto-Germaine Greer figure before Greer hit. We’re influenced by the time, particularly since the stories need to take place on quite a wide scale, and they will impact on proper real life.

Allison has been put through the wringer this season; are there plans to push Rachel next year?

I think it’s the nature of the story we wanted to tell. We were story-led: there was never a conscious decision that we were going to give Allison more of an arc. That happened to be a good element to play with. There are bits of that in series two as well: characters who we wanted to push in particular stories. There are some fairly big things happening for all of them in the second series, and I’m already thinking, if there is a third series, how it progresses.

I think that everyone gets a moment, which is important: you’ve got four people who are all good actors. You don’t want to let any of them down, but you don’t want to artificially push it. They work best as an ensemble amongst themselves.

Both Sir Toby and Gilmore have plenty in their back stories: how much of Sir Toby’s character was altered when you knew who would be playing him?

We created him specifically for Hugh [Ross]. As I remember, we decided we wanted it to be a group of four, as with Jago & Litefoot which has Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Quick with Ellie as the newcomer. David had really enjoyed working with Hugh on a number of projects, and having worked with him on Counter-Measures I can see exactly why: he’s an amazing person to be around and a brilliant actor. It fed into there.

I wanted to avoid Sir Toby being every civil servant from every Doctor Who that you’d ever come across. There’s the whole thing about his own agenda: there was aspects that I wanted to push that were interesting. I wanted him to be competent, because there were too many bumbling civil servants who get in the way. I wanted him to be personable, and not an idiot, and have his heart pretty much in the right place…

Are you saying the last scene of Artificial Intelligence shows a man with his heart in the right place?!

That’s true! I’m not saying he’s a good man, and he’s not a bad man.

He’s a pragmatic man.

That’s the right word. It would  be too easy to push him all the way one way or another. There are times he does good things, times he does bad – and I think that’s true to all of them to a degree. The others are more nakedly on the side of the angels, which is odd given Toby is the one who’s a Catholic. I thought that made him an interesting character to explore.

The “Father forgive me” line in State of Emergency to me felt like he was putting on an act for the benefit of Rachel and Gilmore…

I think there are times where the public and private faces disagree. There are still areas to explore there.

His resemblance to Irving Braxiatel came to mind as I was writing the review of State of Emergency, and I hope it doesn’t go that way. To me the problem with Brax is that we don’t know who he is because of the various different stewardships of the Benny range…

It’s a tricksy comparison because bizarrely I’m fairly unfamiliar with the Benny range, even though I’ve written one (!) and a short story entirely about Irving Braxiatel… I can sort of see that it could have the sense. I think series two will give kind of a clearer example of where Sir Toby is in reality. He has his beliefs: they back him up when he needs them to and he ignores them when they don’t. I think that can be true of quite a few extremist Christians.

Can you drop some hints about series two?

They go abroad for one – that’s potentially quite interesting. We’re trying to look at things, in the phrase Ken used, “What’s sexy in the 1960s?” We wanted to have a slightly international episode, in the ITC style, where it’s filmed somewhere in England, with a glamorous backdrop for ten seconds then back projection. I’ve just finished doing the notes on the first draft of that.

There’s a fairly straightforward thriller: something happening underground. We’ve got one that’s an exploration of sexism in the 1960s with a woman in charge of the team: there’s a certain intrigue to play with. And one about the legacies of past actions coming back to catch up with people…

Thanks to Paul Spragg for assistance in setting this interview up. Counter-Measures can be ordered by clicking here

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