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- Behind the scenes with Shada
I think it was in November 1979 that I became a fan of Douglas Adams. I must already have been aware of his name, having doubtless seen it on the credits of Doctor Who over the previous year or so, but the arrival of the first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book on my twelfth birthday marked the real epiphany for me.
I'd missed the original radio series, but I sought it out and devoured it hungrily. I was unaware at the time that in that very same month, production was coming to a premature end on Shada, the last of the Doctor Who stories to be scripted by Douglas Adams.
I remained an avid admirer of Douglas's work throughout his life, and I still can't quite believe that he's no longer here. So when Gary Russell rang me from the Big Finish office last summer and asked me if I'd like to direct a new version of Shada for a BBCi webcast, I was both delighted and alarmed.
Delighted because I had never dreamed I'd get a chance to direct something written by one of my childhood heroes. Alarmed because Douglas Adams is so very precious to me, just as he is to his countless fans across the world. Would it be sacrilegious to update Shada for a new medium and a new Doctor?
When Gary's script arrived, any fears were allayed. He hadn't tampered with the original dialogue or with the spirit of the story. He'd merely inducted Paul McGann's Time Lord into the action, and added the occasional snippet of explanatory dialogue to scenes that were otherwise purely visual.
And it was a great reassurance to know that Douglas Adams's family and also his friend Lalla Ward, who was of course our strongest link with the original 1979 production, were both in full approval of the project. So I said yes!
Following a month or two of pre-production and casting, Shada was rehearsed and recorded over four days in November 2002 at the Christchurch Studios in Bristol.
Because the majority of the cast and crew had travelled up from London for the week, we enjoyed a rather stronger social bond than is sometimes the case with radio recording - for those few days it was rather like being away on a location shoot or a theatre tour. As a result, my recollections of the social life in our hotel, and in the bars and restaurants of Bristol, are just as strong as my memories of the recording itself.
We began with a read-through of the script on the Monday afternoon. A read-through is a useful way not only of familiarising oneself with the sound and rhythm of the script, but also of establishing a working relationship with the cast and getting a feel for the way the various performances are going to develop.
The recording schedule itself was dictated as ever by the twin gods of availability and economics, which in practice meant that on the Tuesday we completed everything involving Melvyn Hayes, Hannah Gordon and Stuart Crossman, while James Fox and Andrew Sachs were finished by the end of the Wednesday. The remaining cast were there for the entire week. Within that framework, I tried to keep the overall running order as chronological as possible.
For the record, the very first scene we recorded was the opening encounter between Chris Parsons and Professor Chronotis, while the final scenes to be committed to tape were Paul McGann's 'solo spots' on board the TARDIS in the last episode.
I'm sure you know all about Paul McGann, Lalla Ward and John Leeson, so there's nothing I need tell you about them - except perhaps what an absolute joy they were during the recording.
Paul was everything one could wish for from a leading man: warm, witty, and fired up with enthusiasm for the project. Lalla was bubbling over with fond reminiscences about the original production, and she also had plenty of fresh ideas about Romana which were incorporated into the new version.
Lalla is also a great crossword enthusiast, which is something we have in common, although she's quite a lot faster than I am. And I have to confess that my heart leapt unexpectedly during the read-through when John Leeson delivered his first line as K9 - I think that was the moment I realised we were doing proper Doctor Who!
Casting the actors who would work alongside Paul, Lalla and John was one of the biggest challenges. I've always believed that good casting accounts for a substantial proportion of the director's job: a bad director will fritter away the rehearsal process trying to coax miscast actors into doing things they aren't comfortable with, whereas a good director takes a bit of time to cast the right people in the first place. That, at least, is what I try to do!
I've been asked if I was ever tempted to approach members of the original Shada company. That was certainly an option to which I gave serious consideration, but in the end I decided that we should have an all-new cast.
There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, and most obviously, I wouldn't have been able to reconvene the entire cast of the 1979 version, because some of them are sadly no longer with us.
Secondly, a couple of the characters are Cambridge students - so, again, I felt that I needed actors who would sound younger than the people who played those characters nearly a quarter of a century ago!
And thirdly, I simply felt that for this production to succeed on its own merits, we needed to break the ties with the unfinished TV version and achieve a clear identity of our own. I have the utmost respect for the original Shada cast, but my feeling was that we should wipe the slate clean and begin afresh.
James Fox is an actor of great international repute and we were extremely fortunate to secure his services as Professor Chronotis. Watch his performances in films like The Servant, A Passage to India or The Remains of the Day, in which he plays Anthony Hopkins's morally ambiguous master Lord Darlington, and you'll see why he is so much in demand.
I think it was James's performance as the fuddy-duddy Professor Summerlee in The Lost World, a lavish BBC adaptation made a couple of years ago, which actively brought him to my mind as Chronotis. I scarcely dared hope that he might say yes, and of course I was delighted when his agent rang to say that James loved the script and would like to play the Professor.
It turned out he was an old family friend of Lalla Ward's - I'd had no idea of this when I cast him, but showbusiness is a surprisingly small world and it's remarkable how often these things happen. And what a perfect gentleman and a delightful colleague he was.
What can I possibly say about the magnificent Andrew Sachs? His performance as Skagra is an absolute delight. You'll find that it's very different from the interpretation of the character in the 1979 production, but it's every bit as vivid and villainous.
As you'd expect from such a veteran of voice work, Andrew's performance is incredibly precise and perfectly judged: there's nothing this man doesn't know about microphone technique. A charming man and a terrific actor, he was irrepressibly inventive and witty in the studio, forever coming up with new ideas and variations on the nuances of Skagra's lines.
It was Andrew's idea that Skagra should be uncertain of the exact meaning of Earth expressions like 'please' and 'cycling' and 'Do you need a lift?'. He was, in short, a joy to work with, and it was a sad moment when he finished his final scene. When I saw Paul McGann again recently, one of the first things he said was 'Wasn't Andrew Sachs just wonderful?'
Sean Biggerstaff is a young actor who came to prominence as Oliver Wood in the first of the Harry Potter movies. It may not be the biggest role in the film, but I know I wasn't alone in finding that Sean's performance leaped from the screen and made an immediate impression.
I wanted a Chris Parsons who was not only suitably youthful, but who also had a voice that would provide a good contrast with the mellow tones of Paul McGann, because Chris is teamed up with the Doctor for much of the story and these kinds of contrasts always make for easier and richer listening.
Sean fitted the bill in both respects, and blow me down if it didn't turn out that his favourite writer was Douglas Adams! A smashing chap, a very fine actor, and definitely a name to watch for in the future.
Rather like Trillian in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, on paper Clare Keightley isn't perhaps the most vividly written of characters, and I knew I needed an actor who would bring a real inner strength to the role.
I've admired Susannah Harker's work ever since that wonderful serial House of Cards, and her subsequent appearances in dramas like Pride and Prejudice and Ultraviolet have confirmed that she's a performer of genuine power and substance. I approached Susannah's agent hoping against hope that she'd be interested in the role, and it turned out that she was something of a childhood fan of Doctor Who!
If I recall correctly Susannah was the first of the guest cast to confirm, and she gives a terrific, spirited performance. She had particular fun with Clare's ongoing quest for her missing bicycle!
For the small but pivotal role of Wilkin the college porter, I thought it would be a good idea to cast an experienced character actor with a history of comic roles, as had been the case with the late Gerald Campion, who played Wilkin in the 1979 production.
Pondering the fact that Gerald Campion had been famous for playing the incorrigible schoolboy Billy Bunter in the long-running TV comedy series, I suddenly recalled that Melvyn Hayes, whom I'd known for a couple of years, had appeared alongside Campion in the same series, and so the idea seemed irresistible.
Melvyn devoured the role with relish, and was a wonderful fellow to have around. He's been in showbusiness nearly all his life, and has worked with any number of the 'greats'. He enjoyed reminiscing with James Fox about their antics at the premiere of one of Cliff Richard's movies back in the 1960s!
There's nothing explicit in the script to suggest that the voice of Skagra's Ship should be smooth and seductive, but it seemed a good idea to me; I wanted to get away from the idea of a harsh, metallic computer voice and go for something with a bit of attitude.
A mature, sexy voice seemed perfect not only for the Ship's rather flirtatious relationship with the Doctor, but also for its indulgent attitude to Skagra, rather like a mother soothing a petulant child. I drew up a shortlist of honey-voiced actresses, and I think Hannah Gordon was the first name I scribbled down! Owing to her busy schedule Hannah could only be with us for a few hours on the Tuesday afternoon, so the very first thing she did on arriving in Bristol was to join the cast for the publicity photographs.
All her scenes were then recorded en bloc, which was quite a marathon for Hannah, locked away in a booth so that we could isolate her voice for the subsequent effects treatment. Needless to say she was a consummate pro, and her contribution to Shada is immense: what might have been an emotionless computer voice has become one of the most vibrant characters in the story.
Very important to the scope of the finished production are our two multi-tasking 'voice men', Barnaby Edwards and Stuart Crossman.
Barnaby may be familiar to you as a director and actor in several of the Big Finish audio dramas, and his tones are put to excellent use in the dual roles of Professor Caldera and the Krarg Commander. I'd previously worked with Stuart in a theatre production of The Wind in the Willows a year or so earlier, and I'd witnessed his versatility in playing everything from a policeman to a delinquent weasel.
He was therefore an ideal choice for the roles of the Police Constable, the hapless Motorist, and the subordinate Krargs.
Barney, Stuart and I also contributed various additional voices throughout the play, such as the outraged pedestrians during the bicycle chase and the babble of voices in Skagra's sphere.
On one evening we had a mass Krarg session in which various members of the cast, including Sean Biggerstaff, Andrew Sachs and John Leeson, together with several of the production staff from both Big Finish and BBCi, provided general Krarg roaring for the crowd scenes in the last couple of episodes. I suppose it's rather a silly way to earn a living, but I wouldn't want to swap it for any other.
Ninety per cent of the first episode of Shada uses exactly the same script as the original television production, but if you're familiar with the existing 1979 footage, you'll know that this episode is, perforce, the most extensively reworked of the six.
The later episodes have undergone only the occasional tweak to accommodate the new format, but the first episode required a couple of substantial alterations.
Gary Russell has written a brand new prologue which, I think you'll agree, not only serves to introduce the new team of the eighth Doctor and President Romana, but also links our new production rather neatly with established Doctor Who history: we hear of the original trip to Cambridge, and of the punting expedition so rudely interrupted by the events of The Five Doctors. So, for those concerned about the integrity of the Doctor Who canon, I think we've got it covered.
The other changes to the first episode derive from the fact that a couple of sequences in the original version were purely visual. The opening scene on board the Think Tank station, and a later sequence in which Skagra waylays an unsuspecting motorist, were both originally non-speaking scenes that have now acquired dialogue courtesy of Gary.
And finally, here's a little snippet from the studio floor: when the Doctor asks "How long were we gone?" in the prologue scene, it was John Leeson's suggestion that K9 should give the answer in such punctilious detail. The script said "Two point eight hours," but John said, "I think K9 would say something more like 'Two hours, 21 minutes, 13.26 seconds.'" And who was I to disagree with the man himself?
This episode sees the first appearance of Clare Keightley, played by Susannah Harker. It was obvious from the first read-through that there was a wonderful chemistry in the Chris/Clare double-act, not to mention in the Doctor/Clare relationship.
Actually, the Doctor's first meeting with Clare, which happens towards the end of this episode, has become one of my favourite scenes in the whole piece: sparky, light and just the right side of flirtatious. In fact, Susannah got on so well with Paul that, as a direct result of their working together on Shada, the pair of them recently appeared together in a two-handed play called The Little Black Book at London's Riverside Studios. And an excellent show it was too.
This episode culminates with the famous bicycle chase. In the television version this sequence provided a picturesque showcase for the Cambridge locations, as the Doctor was pursued by the Sphere through the streets and colleges, encountering pedestrians, choristers and Skagra himself along the way.
Ours is a rather shorter and more audio-friendly variation, but I think you'll enjoy it all the same. Paul had a whale of a time simulating the sound of his voice juddering as his bicycle rattled down a set of stone steps!
Here's a funny thing. Probably more than half of the people who heard this episode during post-production have asked me whether the scene with the telephone answering machine was a mistake. "People didn't have answerphones back in 1979, did they?" is a question I've been asked repeatedly over the last few weeks.
So you'll be pleased to know that (a) the answerphone scene does indeed hail from the original script, and (b) answerphones existed long before 1979, as demonstrated by the opening credits of The Rockford Files (first transmitted in 1974), not to mention Paul Evans's inelegantly titled 1978 novelty hit 'Hello This Is Joannie (The Telephone Answering Machine Song)'. It's possible that I'm the only person who can actually remember the latter, but believe me this is probably a good thing.
One slight amendment in this episode was brought about by my casting of Sean Biggerstaff as Chris Parsons. If you're familiar with the original Shada footage, you may remember that having learned that Chris was educated at Bristol Grammar School, the Doctor refers to him as 'Bristol' all the way through the story. This was an element that Gary Russell had elected to remove from the script, feeling (rightly, I think) that it was an idiosyncratic touch more in keeping with Tom Baker's Doctor than with Paul McGann's.
When I cast a Glaswegian actor as Chris, the surviving line about Bristol Grammar School suddenly seemed a little incongruous - so we changed it in the studio. I asked Sean to name some schools around where he'd grown up, and having tried out a few names for size we plumped for St Aloysius. In doing so, we erased what is probably Doctor Who's only reference to Bristol - which, ironically, was the very town in which we were recording.
I think part four of Shada is the episode for which the least amount of footage was completed back in 1979: the majority of the episode consists of unrecorded sequences on board Skagra's ship and the Krarg Carrier, and as a result this episode, which develops the character of Skagra and introduces us to the monstrous Krargs, remains fairly unfamiliar even to hardened fans.
Watch out for some classic Douglas Adams techno-babble as the Doctor persuades the Ship to reconfigure her circuitry. Paul and Hannah were admirably unfazed by the tongue-twisting technical gobbledegook, and sailed through the scene superbly.
Barnaby Edwards plays two very different roles in this episode: the lumbering Krarg Commander and the timorous Professor Caldera. It was Barney's idea to portray the brain-drained Caldera as a kind of affectionate tribute to the late Richard Vernon's Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: a very sweet idea and one which we all enjoyed in the studio.
Paul giggled a lot as Caldera's querulous tones became more and more eccentric with each take! We toned it down a little bit in the end...
In this episode we finally arrive at Shada itself, where the stakes are raised and the revelations come thick and fast. There are some wonderful plot twists in this episode, and also some classic Douglas Adams humour.
The Doctor's various put-downs as Skagra reveals his diabolical plans could have come straight from the pages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and we all had a good laugh with these scenes at the read-through.
Thankfully undetectable in the finished episode is the noise interference that gave us a few nightmares on the final afternoon of recording. Everything had been going like clockwork, and it even looked as if we might finish ahead of schedule, when our microphones started picking up the dull thump-thump-thump of amplified rock music.
All through the week we'd socialised with Massive Attack, who were mixing their new album 100th Window in the studio upstairs, and initially we thought it must be their playbacks coming through the ceiling. But the real culprit turned out to be a party in the house next door. Christchurch Studios boast state-of-the-art soundproofing, so you can only imagine how loud the party must have been.
As our luck would have it, the scene we were trying to record was a quiet one, in which the Doctor, Chris and K9 hide from the Krargs and then hear the familiar hum of a TARDIS. Whenever Paul said 'Shh! Listen!', all we could hear was the music - as though the Doctor were alerting Chris to the sound of a nearby Krarg discotheque.
After an hour or so of trying to work around the problem, the diplomatic studio manager succeeded in getting the racket next door turned down, and we re-recorded the offending scenes. So everything turned out fine in the end - apart from our hopes of finishing ahead of schedule, of course.
Our sound designer Gareth Jenkins, the man responsible for creating all the soundscapes and voice effects, makes a brief cameo appearance in this episode.
During the scene in which Skagra is struggling to regain control of the Doctor's TARDIS, the script suggested that only the possessed Chris should intone the words 'Under control'. During the post-production process I decided that this sounded wrong, and that we needed to hear the Krargs chanting the phrase alongside Chris, so Gareth stepped into the breach and contributed not one but a whole gang of Krargs.
Talking of Krargs, Barnaby Edwards provided a tour de force when recording his death scene at the Krarg Commander. There's quite a crowd in that scene, and while I was in the main studio with the other actors, Barney was roaring away in an isolation booth. I asked him to give us more than we'd eventually use, because in action scenes it's always useful to have a little extra so-called 'wildtrack' material at our disposal during post-production. So he roared his way to several sticky ends, earning himself a round of applause from Paul and the rest of the cast!
I can't finish without mentioning something I haven't yet touched upon, which is Russell Stone's brilliant score. Incidental music makes an important contribution to the mood and atmosphere of any piece of drama, and Russell's music for Shada surpassed my expectations. Always sympathetic and never obtrusive, it plays a fundamental role in the final sound picture.
I mention it here because, like the script itself, it reaches something of an emotive peak in those lovely final scenes in part six. One of the many things at which Douglas Adams excelled was writing unsentimental but beautifully evocative farewell scenes, as you'll know if you've seen the TV version of Hitchhiker or the Doctor Who story City of Death. With a little help from Russell, I think our cast brings the final curtain down on Shada in an equally tender and suitably wistful fashion...
Extras - Krarg voices
Director Nicholas Pegg shares some behind-the-scenes moments from the recording of Shada.
The Krarg voices in the completed version of Shada were electronically treated in post-production to give the creatures their gravelly tones. However, the actors who played the Krargs were still required to growl and roar in the studio to provide the raw material for these effects.
At the end of one of the recording days, our two Krarg actors were joined in the studio by other cast members and various production staff from BBCi and Big Finish. Once everyone was grouped around the microphones, I directed them through the various different Krarg effects that we required: some low growling, some enraged roaring, the 'Universal Mind' chant from the end of part five, and so on.
In the extras, you'll hear a couple of glimpses of the raw, untreated Krarg voices in the studio.
Angry Krargs part one
At the beginning of this clip, you can hear me cueing actor Stuart Crossman, who provides the first couple of seconds' worth of growling, followed by each of the other Krargs, one by one, as I pointed to each person in turn.
So you must bear in mind that not all of the people you can hear in this clip are actors, and not all of their Krargs proved suitable for use in post-production - especially not the last one, which is provided by a very sporting BBCi producer who shall remain nameless!
Angry Krargs part two
You've heard the Krargs growling one by one - now listen to how much noise can they make when they do it all together.
Extras - Sphere voices
Director Nicholas Pegg shares some behind-the-scenes moments from the recording of Shada.
The babble of voices inside Skagra's Sphere offered quite a complex challenge. Aside from the occasional 'spot effect' such as the Doctor's voice surfacing in the Sphere towards the end of part three, it didn't seem appropriate that we should be able to discern individual words. At the same time I certainly didn't want the cheap cop-out of a couple of bored actors muttering "Rhubarb, rhubarb".
So we went to some trouble to create a multi-layered effect, and recorded a great deal of material, ranging from ghostly whispers to ear-splitting shrieks and yells (not wanting to ruin the valuable larynxes of my cast, I provided the latter myself). Gareth Jenkins, our sound designer, then layered up all the different voices during post-production to create the effect of the babbling minds trapped inside the Sphere.
In addition to the 'general' Sphere voices, we recorded some specific ones too: I got Paul McGann to improvise a wildtrack of the Doctor's mind trapped in the Sphere (which you can hear in part three), and I also decided to record some material involving the Motorist and Professor Caldera.
Bearing in mind that the Sphere is supposed to contain every aspect of its victims' minds, I reasoned that we should hear not only howls of anguish, but also some idle, random streams of consciousness, so I asked Stuart Crossman and Barnaby Edwards to improvise the rambling thoughts of the Motorist and Caldera.
I should point out that these clips were entirely unrehearsed and unscripted - and as you can hear, the results were rather splendid. And yes, they were indeed used, however subtly, in the final version!