This week I’m pleased to post my interview with Nigel Fairs, who cast, directed, composed and mixed the Faction Paradox Protocols published by BBV. Many know Nigel from his work on the Sapphire and Steel and Tomorrow People audio drama serials from Big Finish productions. In this interview Nigel gives a good-humored, at times surprisingly frank account of his work on the first Faction Paradox audio series. You can learn more about Nigel Fairs at his website.
How did you get into audio drama in the first place?
NF: I’ve been making audio drama since I was about 5 or 6. The very first one I made was called ‘The Green Ghost’ and starred me, my grandmother and my teddy bear (which I voiced). When I was about 11 I started bullying my school-friends into making ‘radio serials’ (some sci fi, some kitchen sink dramas) – two of these poor friends (Linda and Chris) ended up being in the FPs – and carried on making those whilst I was at drama school. When I was a full-time actor I was asked to be involved with the Audio Visuals company (run by Bill Baggs and Gary Russell) which is how I met them, and worked with them professionally later.
Do you listen to audio drama as a pastime as well as a vocation? Are there creators in the field whose work you find particularly inspiring or challenging?
NF: I always have Radio 4 on, yes, so I do hear the odd play and am an avid fan of ‘The Archers’. I’ve had to stop the car on occasions because a scene has reduced me to tears. There was a particularly vivid rape scene a few years back which I think is probably one of the most disturbing pieces of audio drama I’ve ever heard. In my teens I loved listening to a late night adventure serial, I forget what it was called but it started with a gunshot. And later on there was a wonderful fantasy serial called ‘Hordes of the Things’ which I think starred Frank Middlemass (?) and had a magnificent theme tune.
How did the Faction Paradox Protocols series come to be at BBV, and how did you come to be involved?
NF: I’ve no idea how they appeared at BBV I’m afraid – you’ll have to ask Bill that – but, having edited audio drama for about 25 years by then I was keen to do some for Bill and he gave me ‘Faction Paradox’ as an “audition” of sorts. To be honest I had no idea what they were about, really – I’m not a huge sci fi fan and I had NO IDEA they were all about the Time Lords etc (though of course I recognised the Sontarans and tried to do an impersonation of the brilliant actor who played Lynx for the first two). But I thought they were well-written and quirky audio dramas. Sadly the first couple overran and Bill decided we should cut quite a lot of my favourite sections (all of which are on cd somewhere); mostly character monologues which gave them a bit of style, made them stand out I think. But he was the producer and it was his choice, quite rightly, to push the story on.
You wore many hats for the BBV Faction Paradox protocols, directing, casting, acting, composing music, and doing sound design. While this may have been a budgetary necessity, it also gave you carte blanche to put your stamp on the Faction Paradox universe. What was your vision for the series?
NF: To be honest, it wasn’t my vision at all, that was the scriptwriter’s. I used to get the scripts and try to make them good pieces of audio drama. And yes, the budgets were tiny, so that’s why I got to do all the work once Bill and the writer had finished the scripting process!!
Do you have a favorite “hat“? Do you think of yourself primarily as an actor, director, writer, composer, etc?
NF: That’s an interesting question. I think I probably think of myself as a creative person who can turn his hand to all of those things. When I’m doing any particular job I tend to give 100% to it, whichever hat I’m wearing…which can be exhausting, particularly if you’re also cooking lunch for the cast at the same time!
Let‘s take a closer look at your many roles:
Sound design: Lawrence Miles gave you highly visual ideas to convey with sound. How did you decide what a talking tattoo would sound like, or a lethal shadow-weapon? Can you describe how you created the iconic sound of the “sombras que corta“ (shadows that cut), the Faction‘s trademark armament?
NF: Oh crumbs. At the time I was doing FP, I had VERY limited equipment and effects, so I was literally hitting things and twiddling knobs and seeing what they sounded like! The shadow weapons were me bashing an oven tray and a frying pan together and then putting a reverse echo on it!!!! As for the talking tattoo, was that in one of the later ones, the one set on a prison planet? I think that was just me turning the treble up to make the voice sound tinny and small!! The scripts were very very filmic, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. I thought the best thing about them was the character interaction and the overall character storylines. But that interests me more than monsters and space battles anyway!
Music: You also composed the Faction theme music, a witchy mix of harpsichord and calliope. What inspired this sombre-yet-playful tune? It underwent a few iterations over the course of the series, ranging from soft-rock to a later dirge rendition. What occasioned the changes?
NF: I changed the theme because nobody liked the original version!! I think Lawrence thought it sounded too jolly, which, on reflection, is quite right. I think, because of the quirky nature of the monologues and Ellis Pike’s character (Morloch?) in the first episodes, I thought it was meant to be a ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’-style thing. I mean all that stuff with the swearing witch woman and the Sontarans and the Servalan-type character was all a bit camp!! Of course I later understood that it was meant to be darker than that and tried to change the music accordingly.
My favourite score was for the last two. It was all based round a piece of classical music that was written in the year the flashback (to Justine’s childhood) was set. I remember a bit I was really pleased with when the girls were romping in the fields at the beginning. And also another cue at the end – by then I’d understood that the whole thing was meant to be a sweeping epic and intended to slowly take the style and scores into more filmic territory (like I eventually tried to do with ‘The Tomorrow People’).
Casting: I have the impression that BBV budgets for casting were limited, as casts were small and there were fewer “big-name” stars relative to similar productions from Big Finish and Magic Bullet. However, the casting for the series was effective, with engaging leads and solid performances from even minor characters such as mad King George (Eric MacLennan) and Mary Culver (Jackie Skarvellis). Did you hold auditions for the roles, or were the casts of the Protocols drawn from actors you had worked with before?
NF: There was hardly any casting budget at all. I had to rope in friends I’d worked with in the theatre, promising them that though the money was rubbish I’d cook them a nice lunch and we’d have a drink afterwards! Eric had been my assistant director when I ran a youth theatre in Kent and Jackie had done two or three of my plays in the Brighton Festival. She’s bonkers, a real eccentric lady. I did hold some auditions alongside a theatre play I was casting, which was how I found Suzanne, whom I’ve worked with many times since, and Emma. Both of whom are adorable, and were very enthusiastic about the whole project, though neither of them could pronounce ‘Sontaran’.
On a personal note, I was particularly taken with Ellis Pike‘s performance as Godfather Morlock and Suzanne Proctor‘s as Justine. Any news of what these actors are doing now?
NF: I directed Suzanne in a theatre production about a terrorist suspect last year. She’s fantastic. I think she’s just done some telly and is expecting her second baby sometime soon. She also sings in a brilliant trio. Ellis I haven’t seen for a while, though I know he does quite a bit of theatre. I’m told he also plays the Prince Regent sometimes at Brighton Pavilion! I originally worked with him in the actors’ company at MOMI back in the early nineties.
Direction: This may be more of a compliment than a question, but in reading Lawrence Miles‘s character notes in the scripts, I was struck by how closely the actors realized the nuances of their roles. For example, Miles wrote of the Demetra Kine character from Movers:
Demetra Kine. The villainess of the piece, although she’s not a villain in the sneering, sadistic sense of the term (i.e. she’s not like Lolita from the previous Volumes). Demetra is quiet, controlled, determined and most of all professional: she comes from a culture in which assassination’s an everyday event and empire-building’s a way of life, so as a leading member of a self-made semi-aristocratic family she knows about being clinical and detached. Actually you could say she’s a lot like Michael Corleone, but in fact the closest historical parallel is probably Lucretia Borgia. She always speaks in a slow, measured fashion, and what’s most notable is that she’s always so reasonable, even when the things she’s saying seem bizarre or unacceptable. The underlying sense is that she might, if treated properly, be an ally instead of an enemy.
Kate Dyson did such a superb job that I was getting that “underlying sense“ long before I read this description. While giving Kate her due, you consistently got solid performances from your actors that were faithful to Miles‘s scripts and subtle character notes. In audio drama, with the pressures of limited studio time and often no rehearsals, what do you find effective directing comes down to?
NF: Kate is a superb actress and she was also in the terrorist play I directed last year. Always a pleasure to work with, and a fascinating lady who does a lot of work for human rights.
Effective direction ALWAYS comes down to casting. If you cast the right person who knows how to do their job, then you’re laughing; they do it!? I always say that the most important part of the studio day is the twenty minutes at the beginning, when everyone’s sitting around having a coffee. That’s when I get to suss how each actor works and relates to each other. It’s invaluable time; my job is to put them at their ease and ensure that a professional working atmosphere is created. This applies to theatre work as well of course.
Acting: You had a few supporting, enjoyable character roles in the Protocols series: Lord Ruthven, an effete time-lord (and reference to Polidori’s Byronic vampire?), and General Kine, a bull-headed yet somehow sympathetic Sontaran officer. After the first two episodes you were largely absent from the casts until the fifth release, where you had a brief walk-on role as the unnamed Reverend. After a notable presence in the first two stories, did you deliberately recuse yourself from the casts?
NF: Not at all!! Again it was a budgetary decision. In the second and third cds there were fewer characters so we could afford to use that number of actors. In the first and last couple we couldn’t so I had to fill in!! I really enjoyed playing the Sontaran, though it was all in post production, as was Lord R. I can’t remember who read it in on the day. Suzanne probably!!
Do you have a favorite Faction Paradox Protocols release?
NF: I liked the middle two the best I think. I loved all those gambling scenes and the clockwork robot things. I think I’d settled down a bit by then and had a bit more of an idea of what I was supposed to be doing. I was pleased with the score – a lot of harpsichord I think, and a Chinesey-kind of theme for the robots. And the cast was wonderful, we laughed such a lot recording that one. Saul Jaffe and Jo Castleton in particular are terrible gigglers. My cat was in it too!!
You‘ve come a long way as an audio drama producer and director since your days at BBV. Looking back at the Faction Paradox Protocols series, what are you most proud of? What would you do differently if you could?
NF: It would have been nice to have recorded it in a proper studio rather than in my bedroom! I can’t bear to listen to them now really, as the quality of dialogue recording is so poor. But they were invaluable to me as far as experience went and I really enjoyed the scripts, I thought they were very different. I’d love to have known what happened next, and had something to do with them, but I understand Alistair Lock did a superb job, so that’s brilliant. I used him several times on ‘Sapphire and Steel’ and love his work.
Magic Bullet‘s later Faction series took a dramatically different stylistic direction. Have you heard any of them? What do you think of them?
NF: Alistair did give me the first one but I’m sorry to say I haven’t listened to it. It’s really difficult hearing someone else make a better job of something you put your heart and soul into with limited money, equipment and resources! But when I was listening to the final edit of one of Alistair’s ‘Sapphire and Steel’s he did play me an excerpt and I thought it sounded brilliant. So I’m glad it has an ongoing life.
So far you have mostly been associated with licensed properties in audio drama, such as Faction Paradox (BBV), Sapphire and Steel, the Tomorrow People, and Dr. Who (Big Finish productions). Do you have any interest in writing or producing original audio drama stories or properties? Or do you believe this is financially impractical for commercial audio drama in the UK today (as Magic Bullet producer Alan Stevens does)?
NF: Oh my goodness OF COURSE I’d rather be producing original drama!! It’s very frustrating indeed being tied to the various limitations of ‘licensed properties’. I think possibly my takes on the ‘Tomorrow People’ and ‘Sapphire and Steel’ series were a little radical for some people – straying too far from the original series for them, maybe – but my main interest lies in making good quality drama and working with talented people. It can be VERY frustrating when you’ve sweated blood and tears over these things and they get dismissed as “rubbish” by people who don’t share your vision; it really hurts, which, if I’m honest, is one of the reasons I’m stepping away from the medium at the moment. Too much pain for too little money!!
I’m working on several original projects at the moment, and also a novel, none of which are paying much, if anything, but are very, very fulfilling creatively.
Generally speaking, with the worldwide economy experiencing a downturn, do you see the British (or larger English speaking) market for commercial audio drama holding steady, growing, or shrinking?
NF: I’ve no idea I’m afraid! I know that in times of recession, ‘feel-good’ drama becomes more popular, so I’m hoping that good theatre will flourish, and good drama with it.
What‘s up next for Nigel Fairs in the world of audio drama? What would you like to do that you haven‘t yet had the opportunity to do? Any dream projects?
NF: My dream project is to write and perform in a theatre two-hander with Lou Jameson. I’ve learnt so much from her as a performer over the years. We’ve had an idea, but that won’t happen until other things have happened (that I can’t talk about!! Listen to me being all mysterious!).
I have another ambition, which is to hear a piece of music I’ve composed being played by an orchestra. If I ever win a vast amount of money I’m going to try to make that happen! But at the moment it’s a pipe dream.
As for audio, I’m enjoying doing post production on the ‘Dark Shadows’ series at the moment, particularly composing the music; it’s all very ‘Interview with a Vampire’, very atmospheric. And I’ve also enjoyed my work on the Dr Who Companion Chronicles, I wouldn’t mind doing a few more of them.
My biggest regret is that I never got to finish the ‘Tomorrow People’ series – I had a two year story arc set up and the series got cancelled halfway through, which broke my heart. Especially as I met the creator of the original series (which I so loved as a kid) last year and he said I’d done a better job than he had!! I don’t believe it but what a compliment!!