It used to be that when the axe fell on a television show, that really was it. Full stop. Game over. Move on, people. But being cancelled does not necessarily mean that a series is for ever dead, as the audio production company Big Finish has been successfully proving for the past 22 years.
It was in 1998 that a small band of entrepreneurially minded Doctor Who fans convinced an initially wary BBC to grant them the licence to produce new, full-cast Doctor Who stories for release on CD and cassette. Two decades on, what started off as a modest passion project for its co-founders Jason Haigh-Ellery, Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs is now the UK’s biggest independent producer of audio drama. Doctor Who is still its main bread-and-butter brand (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and David Tennant all have their own ranges), but since the early 00s, Big Finish has expanded by securing the rights to a plethora of vintage telly shows, including The Tomorrow People, Callan, Blake’s 7, Sapphire & Steel, The Prisoner and Star Cops, and giving them a second life on audio, occasionally with the original actors, but sometimes with all-new casts.
“For something to become a Big Finish title, it has to be something that really engages the fans,” says its chairman Haigh-Ellery. “Dark Shadows is a good example of that. Here we have a series that was broadcast during the 1960s on American television and kids used to run home from school to watch it. If something has a hardcore fanbase, then it’s worth us looking at.”
Russell T Davies’s gloriously salty Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood was a show that Big Finish had in its sights since it finished in 2011. Finally, in 2015 it got the OK to continue the exploits of intergalactic horn-dog Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and this month it releases its 40th Torchwood audio play.
Davies himself is not directly involved in the range, but does “keep an eye on the broader ideas”, getting stuck in only with some of the more crucial decisions. “When it came to forging the new Torchwood team, I had a lot of input,” he says. “I think they’ve cast those characters so well. I don’t exactly veto – [producer] James Goss, [director] Scott Handcock and I all worked together on Doctor Who, back in the day, which means we know each other very well. We’re not strangers, so they can tell if I’m unhappy.”
During its TV run, Goss penned a clutch of acclaimed BBC-published Torchwood novels and, with his previous stretch at Big Finish working on its Dark Shadows range, seemed the obvious fit for the fresh adventures of Captain Jack.
“Torchwood is just brilliant,” Goss enthuses. “Imagine that: in the mid-00s there was a show about five broken pansexuals taking on the world from their secret base in Cardiff. It existed in a dour TV landscape that gave us shows like Spooks and Wire in The Blood, but this had sex gas and pterodactyls. I wanted to try to keep some of that mad grit and heart and keep it alive on audio.”
Though Davies mostly keeps a respectful distance, the audio series clearly has his DNA in its bones. “It still feels very much mine,” he says. “Set in Cardiff, aliens and the Welsh, mad schemes, with a wild, mixed-up sexuality! Yes, very me. Captain Jack was a pansexual hero played by an out gay man way back in 2005, and this modern version of the show keeps that on the boil brilliantly. I think James and Scott do an excellent job, I’m proud of them.”
Nearly all of Torchwood’s small-screen cast has, at one point or another, returned for Big Finish’s series, no doubt seduced by the opportunity to have stories specially written around them. “We get to explore characters that the TV show just didn’t have enough episodes to do more with,” says Goss. “National treasures like Indira Varma and Tracy-Ann Oberman and James Marsters are happy to come in because they have such fond memories of the show.”
Big Finish has, over the years, welcomed an eye-popping array of A-listers through its doors. John Hurt, Derek Jacobi, Sheridan Smith, Michael Palin, Nicola Walker, Hugh Bonneville, David Warner, Simon Pegg: all have at some point journeyed down to one of the company’s four UK recording studios. “Benedict Cumberbatch did a Doctor Who story with us in 2008,” recalls senior producer David Richardson, “and we gave him a longer lunch break so he could pop off to audition for Sherlock”.
Last year, Space: 1999 became the latest Gerry Anderson title to receive the kiss of life, joining Terrahawks, Captain Scarlet and Space Precinct on the Big Finish roster. With most of the TV cast gone, Mark Bonnar, Maria Teresa Creasey and Clive Hayward took over the roles originally played by Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse. Anderson’s son, Jamie Anderson, acts as the range’s script editor. “We’ve released one box set so far, but we’ve recorded the second,” says Haigh-Ellery. “I expect Space: 1999 to be up there in a couple of years time.”
Haigh-Ellery says that procuring the rights to a TV show is “sometimes incredibly easy, other times it takes for ever”. On the day we talk, he is about to have a Zoom meeting to discuss a TV title that he has been trying to bring into the Big Finish fold for 15 years. “It’s something that’s very protected,” he teases. “The people involved are very careful. For them, it’s not money first.”
As cult TV aficionados themselves, Haigh-Ellery insists the philosophy behind Big Finish (the company name comes from an episode of Steven Moffat’s 80s kids show Press Gang) tends to be, if it excites them, then there’s probably a market for it. “We all come from the position of being fans,” he says.
The sky-scraping success of Doctor Who’s TV comeback in 2005 was partly due to the fact that, behind the scenes, it was peopled by industry bigwigs who had started off as hardcore fans, and it is that similar combination of grass-roots enthusiasm and professional prowess that appears to be the key to Big Finish’s success.
“This is how fandom works – we all imagine continuing adventures, even if that’s a football fan inventing their fantasy league,” says Davies. “But sci-for fans are lucky, our wishes come true.”