Who came up with the idea of Dorian Gray as an audio series?
Scott Handcock: It’s an idea that’s been kicking around for a couple of years now.
Gary Russell: I know it solidified when we watched the Ben Barnes movie [which was released in 2009]. You made me sit down and watch it and said, “Don’t you think this would make a brilliant series?” and I said, “Yes I think it would.” It’s an idea you had long before then.
S: It’s an idea I’ve always enjoyed. I love audio horror. Big Finish has been doing Dark Shadows for years and I’ve written a few things for that. It was the idea of wanting to do something original for Big Finish that didn’t rely on the Doctor Who franchise or anything else. I think they had just started toying with Sherlock Holmes, and it was around the time of Pride and Prejudice with Zombies and things like that. I was thinking there must be other strong literary characters you could base a series on.
Dorian Gray has always appealed to me as a character; I reread the book, and the film came out at the same time. I started working on the idea of how can you give it a twist. The obvious answer is that he was a real person who met Oscar Wilde, who wrote a book based on him. That means this guy is still out there, and you can tell any sort of story you want from back in the day in the nineteenth century through to the present, and no one will know what to expect.
G: The moment you’re dealing with a troubled immortal you’ve got scope to do just about anything.
S: The thing about Dorian Gray is unlike other immortals you see, who have so much baggage and angst, he doesn’t give a shit about anyone, and will quite happily let people come and go. There’s a real sense of enjoyment to the life he leads, and people affect him occasionally, but on the whole he’s out for himself.
Haven’t you then written yourself into a corner with the ending of The Fallen King of Britain? If it’s to have any effect, it’s got to have an effect on him going forward. “I choose to live…”
G: Look at it like this – and I’m not drawing a direct comparison – but look at it from the point of view of someone who has a drinking problem, or smoking, or drugs, who will wake up one morning and go, “I’ve got to sort myself out.” For three months, they go “I’m fine” and then they’ll slightly slip back in. What makes Dorian interesting is he’s hedonistic, he’s totally selfish, he’s amoral – not immoral, amoral – yet can be full of amazing kindness. In Scott’s vampire one [The Heart That Lives Alone], he’s amazingly kind. He has shades of grey, all the light and dark.
I think therefore you can keep it going – although that is a major point in his timeline, and there is something there that happened, that doesn’t mean automatically he’s going to go, “I’m going to enjoy life and treat everyone wonderfully from now on.”
I’m not suggesting it’s happy fluffy bunny time, but it must have some sort of effect…
G: Yes, it’s got to have some sort of effect, but when you’re an immortal, it’s not going to have the same sort of effect on you.
He’s chosen to give his soul – and at some point that debt has got to come due…
S: Indeed, and somewhere at the back of my head, I know exactly how it will conclude. The joy of the series is that we can set the series at any point.
G: We have no intention of saying that we’ve told everything up to 2007. The joy of this is it’s his life throughout the years. We’ve chosen five points to do this time. Next time, we might do five points, 1920s…40s…
S: We can take him round the world.
G: That’s one reason we did the Singapore one [The Twittering of Sparrows] – we didn’t want everything set in and around England.
S: There’s Paris as well [This World Our Hell]. A nice variety of locations.
G: If you look at it from 1887 onwards to start playing with his life, there’s enormous scope. I don’t think there’s anything we can’t do with Dorian. But at the same time, it’s very important you keep him grounded, because of who he is. You don’t want to turn him into a Doctor Who.
S: You don’t want him on the Titanic. I was chatting with Alex about this on the train, when I asked if there was anything he wanted to do. He said he loved the first script where he met Oscar Wilde [This World…], and the connection to a real historical figure…
G: It’s not a series that is ever going to run out. You’ve got 150 years to play with straight off, so there’s 150 stories you can tell before you’ve even begun. You’ve got scope and an interesting character who has flaws. As long as you have an interesting character with flaws you can exploit, it makes you want to listen to more, because you want to learn about them and make them tick.
S: And he’s a true anti-hero. There’s no point where you’re not rooting for him even when he’s doing the most unpleasant things.
Do you need to put blacker things against him then?
S: If you look at the first five scripts we’ve done, apart from the second script [The Houses In Between] generally we don’t have big confrontations with anything.
G: If you have big villains, The Villain of the Week, you end up going towards Doctor Who.
S: Dorian isn’t a superhero. He’s a man who experiences bizarre things and attracts attention because of what he is.
G: If you’re going to draw a parallel to anything – and it’s a parallel I don’t really want to draw – it’s much more like a Victorian Sapphire and Steel than it is Doctor Who. You have anti-heroes, it’s about events, and the inexplicable and the darkness, and facing off against malevolence and evil and a big hooded monster going, “Bwah ha ha ha!” The moment you do that, you cheapen everything and you are then reducing your villains to super-villain proportions. That was something I knew at the beginning we had to very consciously avoid.
S: You never told me that!
G: I could see you were never going in that direction, but you’ve probably never seen Adam Adamant. I wanted to avoid that kind of thing – Victorian person wakes in modern day times – and that works for Adam Adamant because of the longevity.
What’s great about Dorian is he’s 21, 22 years old, and has lived through everything. Yet, unlike Doctor Who, where you go, “There’s an old man trapped in a young man’s body,” Dorian doesn’t mature a great deal, and that comes back to him being amoral. I think that’s interesting – he’s a 21 year old in the First World War and 1986 and 2007. He’s got a weariness about him, but he’s also got an ingénue and an innocence about him. That doesn’t mean it’s a nice innocence – he will experience things hedonistically but he won’t absorb them. He won’t let them change him.
In life, when you experience things and let them change you, it’s part of getting older. When you cannot physically get older, when your body cannot change, I think it’s very easy to let all of that go, and carry on blithely saying “This is who I am.”
S: Particularly when everyone else treats you like a 21 year old, you’re not going to grow up. That’s how people perceive you and what you’re expected to do. That’s the life he leads.
G: It’s a bit like being a spoiled only child: you get all this attention, and you end up believing it. I think that’s what happens with Dorian: he’s a victim of his own hype, and he chooses to believe his own hype as well.
How did you get Alex Vlahos for this?
S: This goes back to how we pitched it for Big Finish. As I said, the idea’s been floating around for a while now. When I first pitched it, they had a lot of new ranges coming up. They’d just done Drama Showcase, they were still very early into Jago & Litefoot and working on Counter-Measures and various bits and bobs. They said it wasn’t the right time for them.
I think Gary and I were both quite disappointed about that. So Gary said, “How about I commission you to write a Bernice Summerfield that incorporates it into the drama?” I turned it down, thinking it wouldn’t work, but then had the idea of doing a Bernice Summerfield portmanteau where three different stories with our lead characters are linked by Dorian Gray through different time periods.
So we ended up commissioning that, and it was quite a nice pilot for how the series could work: short, little stories with a guest character. I suggested Alex to Gary for the last series of Gallifrey. He came in, had that wonderful voice, and was great. We considered him for another Benny role but as soon as we knew that Dorian was coming up, we took him out for dinner. The way he carried himself, the way he reacted – he was Dorian.
G: When you wrote the Benny, you were writing it for Alex.
S: Yes, and we’d already had conversations with him beforehand, saying “This is coming up, would you do this one play?” He had no idea we were looking at something longer term. We recorded that, I came away absolutely thrilled saying, “That’s who I want to play Dorian if it gets off the ground.”
Then when Jason and Nick said “Okay, Dorian Gray, let’s see how we can make it work for Big Finish,” I spoke to Alex and said “If this were to happen, would you be up for it?” There was never any hesitation. He loves working with Big Finish, and Big Finish loves working with him.
Coincidentally this is Big Finish’s first project working in Cardiff. “Big Finish Cymru”: Gary and I are both based up here, we’ve got studios here, we’ve cast locally for the most part.
G: The biggest asset we have here is the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
S: Some brilliant young actors.
G That’s where Alex came from in the first place.
S: So many you see on TV have come from there.
G: The other thing we really wanted to do, and the RWC is part of this, is we wanted to do a series that felt young. God bless Big Finish, but 99% of what they do most of their leading actors and main stars are rapidly becoming septuagenarians. We wanted to do something where the average age was 24-25…
S: …to draw new listeners into audio drama. Big Finish has such a wonderful output, so creative, and a lot of younger listeners do come in. But to have a series that is targeted at that Twilight-y Supernatural audience would be quite fun.
The other asset of Alex is that he was raised in Cardiff. He’s got a base up here and he likes to come back here, and of course, we didn’t know he was going to be cast as Mordred in Merlin. That meant he happened to be in Wales.
G: When we first started, had he even done The Indian Doctor?
S: When we did Gallifrey, he’d just done Crash, a BBC Wales regional drama, which is where I saw him. His mother works for the BBC and I was working on Doctor Who at the time. She walked in and said, “You know my son.” She has a completely different surname, so I was looking round the office going, “I have no idea who her son is!” That was a little bit awkward – then she said, “Alex…”
G: He’s just a fabulous actor. We knew he was going to go somewhere, but not quite so meteoric and quite so fast. He’s brilliant.
S: And so committed to this project. The moment we approached him with it, he was 100% committed.
G: Not in the scripting sense, but otherwise he’s been involved all the way down the line. We’ve kept him involved in everything.
S: Unlike other Big Finish plays, we had a read through of the first series one night round here, because he wanted to nail what we wanted. Again, most Big Finish actors turn up, play the part. Alex was so determined to get it right, we spent an evening going through the first few scripts.
G: I think he gave us a note! That usual thing of, “The rhythm of that doesn’t work from an acting point of view”, and we’re sitting there going, “Should have spotted that from a mile off…” We ploughed through them, which was an absolute luxury.
Let’s talk about the other actors:
S: Steffan Rhodri was amazing as Oscar Wilde. It comes to this thing of wanting to cast locally and promote Welsh talent. You can’t get much bigger than him. He was phenomenal: he nailed it completely.
G: Steffan’s voice is a voice to die for even when doing an English accent.
S: Fruity without being camp.
G: All the actors we employed, nobody went over the top. Nobody you had to go, can you bring this down.
S: Katy [Manning] played hers absolutely straight [as Dorian’s sister in The Twittering of Sparrows], and she’s marvellous.
G: She’s brilliant. There’s no grotesque in it. She’s not putting on a performance. She’s just delivering it straight down the line which is what she’s so bloody good at.
Did you write it for Katy?
The cadences fall for her voice naturally…
G: Absolutely written for Katy right from the word off.
S: Toby, the vampire, was played by a brilliant actor called Hugh Skinner. He did Tess of the d’Urbevilles a few years ago.
G: We had him recently in a Benny with Geoffrey Beevers.
S: Simon [in The Fallen King of Britain] is David Blackwell, who I worked with on the Radio 4 version of The Graduate, who again is very good. Everyone else is local or from the Welsh College, people we had seen or auditioned.
G: I can’t stress enough how brilliant the Royal Welsh College has been. We’ve known them for a couple of years now: we’ve used a lot of their students for Benny and Gallifrey.
S: We’ve gone in and run workshops.
G: We went to see them one day. We said, “We’re going to try to set this up in Cardiff, we want it to be all about Welsh talent if we can. Do you think any of your students would be interested, as it’s in the holidays, in coming and working for us?” They said, “People will come back – they want the work, and they want to do audio.” It was great, we got everyone we wanted.
S: They gave us a list of everyone we’d seen and we contacted them. I don’t think anyone said no. The brilliant thing about this series, from the moment we outlined the idea to people, everyone says they think it sounds fun and interesting.
It’s a character that people have heard of but don’t know…
G: That was exactly my reaction. When he said we’re doing Dorian Gray, I thought he’s the guy with the portrait, lives forever, and that’s all I knew until I watched the film.
S: And how did you know that?
G: A Blake’s 7 episode. Hadn’t read the book.
S: He’s someone so iconic that even if people haven’t read the original book, they can be tempted to come and try this out. Everything you need to know is explained in the first episode.
G: What I didn’t know until Alex said it the other day was that in the original book he’s blond. Every version of Dorian I’ve ever seen he’s always been dark.
S: We make a joke about that: we say Oscar used artistic licence. There’s a bit in Joe’s episode, [The Fallen King of Britain], where someone quotes the fictional Dorian and uses the phrase “gold hair.” When we were in studio, I said to Alex, “Can you scoff at that line, just slightly?”
G: The Ben Barnes version of Dorian is firmly fixed in my mind.
It’s a different format as well for Big Finish…
S: The first download only series. They were keen to see how it would work. With media progressing the way it is it seemed the obvious thing to do. We’re attracting a younger audience and when you’re starting a new series, you haven’t got that collector mentality where people want physical copies. Space is so precious…
G: It’ll be interesting to see what happens when that option isn’t there.
S: The other thing I was keen that the price reflect this – £2.99 each or £12.99 for the entire series. You can pay more than that for a sandwich in a shop at lunchtime.
And Sherlock appears in the Christmas Special, Ghosts of Christmas Past…
S: That seemed an obvious idea, if you want to do a special thing. Dorian feels like a very Edwardian character, very early 20th Century, so it made sense, given Sherlock Holmes existed, to match the two together. Alex was a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes audios, so when I pitched him the idea for the Christmas Special of pitting him against Sherlock Holmes, he was so excited about working with Sherlock Holmes and Nicholas Briggs!
G: We’ve got a good writer for it.
S: I knew I wanted Tony Lee to write that. A couple years ago at the Gallifrey convention, he gave me a copy of Harker, his continuing adventures of Jonathan Harker from Dracula. I love the idea of continuing the adventures of figures from literary fiction, and knew that with him being a big Holmes fan and a big Wilde fan, he would nail it.
It’s a nice Holmesian mystery that happens to feature Dorian Gray. It’s set in 1912, just after [the Sherlock Holmes special] The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, where Holmes is worldweary and confronted with a foe who’s stronger and faster…