BIG FINISH RECORDING SESSION
SPECIAL PHOTO REPORT
Words and photos by Rick Davy
Big Finish Productions, best known for their highly regarded and highly polished "Doctor Who" audio dramas, were in 2015 granted the licence to produce official "Prisoner" audio dramas. Click HERE for a special dedicated page regarding the set, launched in January 2016.
On 6th July 2015 I was lucky enough to be invited by the producer and writer, Nicholas Briggs, to attend the second recording session, which covered the very end of episode one, "Departure and Arrival", and episode two, "The Schizoid Man". This is the story of the day.
Driving in London is always much easier on a Sunday, so the first 'blessing' of this report is to Mr Briggs for organising the recording session on a Sunday. Bit of a bleak overcast day, but warm and dry, and the day got brighter when I was greeted by Nick in the 'green room' of the recording studio, and given a whistle-stop tour of the facility. Nick was the most genial of hosts, and I will say from the off that it was a delight to spend a day in his company. Nick had first contacted me via a mutual friend, who spoke very highly of Nick's friendliness and hospitality, and the reality certainly lived up to the billing. He even very kindly signed my family's 'house Dalek' that we keep in the lounge for the boys to be amused by - a true gent [Nick, not the Dalek].
Nick then took time to run through what would be happening that day, and introduced me to the studio crew and photographers present, and explained that I pretty much had total freedom to wander round and chat to cast and crew in between takes and sessions. With some of the episodes requiring 'remote' communication (such as the village voice announcer, played by Helen Goldwyn), Nick explained that 'the booth' (which sounds itself like a 'Prisoner' interrogation technique) would be used during the day, which would help to isolate voices (the booth would also be used for telephone conversations and avoid the 'bleeding' of sound into the overall audio mix).
The first member of the cast to arrive was a familiar face, that of actress Celia Imrie, who had set aside the morning to record all her scenes as 'the new Number Two'. I asked her if she knew a lot about the original 'Prisoner' series; "I remember watching the original series at the time. We all thought it was very good, I thought it was very spooky!" A conversation then ensued about what a good actor Celia regarded McGoohan as, but also some of the other Number Two actors, with Peter Wyngarde fondly remembered! Celia then got to grips with her script, whilst other members of the cast arrived.
The first of these was Sara Powell (one of my wife's favourite actresses from her time in 'London's Burning' - although she failed to tell me this until after I had returned home from the recording session), who would be playing Number Nine in the series. She was cast due to Nick's good relationship with a voice agent, Nick recalled; "I described the role, and said 'can you suggest some people?' She sent me some voice clips, and they were all excellent, actually, and I focussed down on Sara." She immediately smiled when she saw Celia, as the two had played opposite each other on television previously!
Celia and Sara, reunited.
Unlike Celia, Sara had not previously seen "The Prisoner", but was aware of it and of the preceding series, "Danger Man"; "I would be very interested to see both series, I want to know what he was resigning from!"
Next to arrive was Jez Fielder, a man of many voices, who would not only be providing some of the village characters, but also 'doing a Frank Maher' and providing the Number 12 character for lead actor Mark Elstob to communicate with (they would then, of course, reverse roles so that in the final mix, Mark Elstob would be talking to 'himself', as did McGoohan in the original series). Jez it turns out, loves the series; "I'm a big fan of The Prisoner", he said, and we discussed where we were when we first saw the series (both having first experienced it back in the 1980s on Channel 4).
Jez Fielder, making us laugh one more time.
Mark Elstob, the leading man, was next to arrive. He is not a name which too many 'Prisoner' fans will be familiar with, but that was an intentional plan from Nick, who I put the question to regarding the casting; "When it came to casting The Prisoner I was thinking of famous people, and had got lots of good recommendations about lots of actors, and I had a meeting with another actor... but remember thinking that what I needed for this part was someone who I know was going to be brilliant, and for whom it really means something, and that I don't want a famous actor, I want the best actor!" Nick then described his eureka moment; "I then thought MARK ELSTOB, I thought 'bet he knows The Prisoner'... I have found my man here, and I knew he was already a brilliant actor so I didn't audition him as such."
Did he not feel he needed some 'star names', I wondered? "I can go with the Number Twos being the famous actors, which is what I am doing." Was there a risk in casting Mark? "He's a massively experienced actor and has done so much", reassured Nick, "and I worked with him in 1995 on a tour of Brideshead Revisited and we were good work colleagues."
He is not a number...
Mark also recalled his casting; "I had worked with him [Nick] years ago, and he emailed me. I was working in Vienna, and he asked me if I was interested in doing some episodes of The Prisoner." Mark then revealed that he assumed he was just being required to do some character parts and voices, but that Nick had meant the lead character. This was "fantastic" enthused Mark.
Mark was also a self-confessed fan of the original series, having seen it in the late 1970s. "I saw some of them... and watched it with keen interest, and there was a comic book of The Prisoner that I had, so I felt as though I was on top of the premise and the look of the thing", he told me. But how did it feel to actually now be part of it? "Well it is a dream come true".
Helen Goldwyn was another of the performers who had not seen the original series, "I know Fenella Fielding's work very well", she told me, so had obviously grasped the 'madness' of her particular 'character', and performed it with much gusto, with every "Good Morning" almost out-maddening the last, to much amusement from the watching gallery. She also provided the voice of the supervisor very well.
Good morning, good morning, good morning!
Also present was the lovely Jamie Anderson, who was acting as script editor for the episodes. Jamie is best known for his work regarding his late father's, Gerry Anderson's, legacy and remained on hand with little pointers and suggestions for Nick, and was wonderful company.
And so it was down to work, with the final few scenes for "Departure and Arrival" (which included the introduction of Celia's character (a la George Baker in "Arrival") and the helicopter escape sequences). Celia got to grips with the role very quickly, and gave a superb performance, which reminded me of Mary Morris, both in terms of the delivery of dialogue, and the sinister, unbeatable, persona of her Number Two. Sara was also excellent, and immediately surprising, as her lovely 'English rose' accent turned immediately to a Caribbean accent for the character. This was, according to Nick, almost a last minute idea; "I was looking at her spotlight entry and some of her accents, and next to her normal accent, and as good, was her Caribbean accent, where she's from, and I phoned her up." Sara readily agreed, Nick recalls, and both are happy with the decision made; "there's a lovely quality to the accent that really brings something to the production."
Next up was what is known as the 'pre-credit sequence' (ending with the famous line "I am Not a Number, I am a Free Man"). The recording of this sequence began with an interesting question from Mark; "Are we in the same room? The sense I get from the episodes is that he is hurling the lines out into nothingness". Good question! Nick and I felt the same, that Number Six was always something of a disembodied voice in these sequences. "I rather like that!" Commented Nick. Celia's laugh was, as you would expect, a sinister mixture of a torturer and a purring cat!
Onto "The Schizoid Man". Much of the episode involved Mark and Jez 'out-McGoohan-impersonating each other', and it was quite a surreal experience. Such is Jez's natural talent for mimickery I, several times, had to look up to see who was speaking, Mark or Jez! It was also confusing for Sara, who also needed to record several scenes twice; "I just repeat myself over and over again, and he is different people... it will all sound very clear in the final edit, I'm sure!"
Mark did a fantastic job, and any worries that he might have still had should quickly disappear, as he handled the part perfectly, and exactly how Nick had wanted.
These sessions are always done without sound effects or music, of course, so the Rover sequences were also a surreal experience to see, as Mark practically swallowed himself when performing the scenes of his character's engulfment, or as he put it; "I had to be dissolved into my essential protoplasm!"
I don't know why I expected anything different, but the session was very relaxed, largely due to Nick's calm and likeable directing style ("lovely, can we do one more of those, just because we can?"), not that re-takes were needed, as everyone's performances it must be said were very on point! It was almost like watching people partaking in their hobby, such was the fun and relaxed atmosphere of it all, but I guess that's what acting is like, doing one's hobby for a living.
Nick surveys his troops...
So much so, that recording of the dialogue in "The Schizoid Man" was completed ahead of schedule, and this left me more time to speak to Nick and co. So how did he feel the recordings had gone so far? "I think it went well... I'm extremely happy with it, I think Mark is doing it his way but there's a huge dollop of McGoohan in there." He was pleased with his leading man... "He was massively prepared", he added, "I saw him pacing around outside, reciting lines, and it was almost as though he had learnt it... but I knew he was that kind of actor, he doesn't do anything by half measures."
I then got the chance, and thanks must go to Nick again, to be a Villager, helping (along with the rest of the cast, other than Celia who had left at lunchtime) with crowd noises, cheers, and murmors. Much fun!
I then had the chance to grab some more time with Number Six again, Mark Elstob, who revealed that although the original brief was for his portrayal to not be a "slavish impersonation of Patrick McGoohan", Nick had telephoned him some time later to explain; "I have actually written the scripts with McGoohan's voice in mind, so I know we said not so much an impersonation, but maybe think about more McGoohan." Mark doesn't consider himself a mimic, but feels he has a good ear, and in my opinion carried this off well. So how did he approach this? "There's a coldness, it's quite a difficult voice to emote with... it's quite hard to be sensitive with his voice and is a really unique delivery", Mark replied, to which I added that the Number Six is not a 'warm and cuddly' character; "Not at all", agreed Mark, "he's completely uncompromising". Mark added that he enjoyed playing him, however; "it's fantastically cathartic, I am not inflexible... it's always nice to play things that are different from you."
Next up was a chat with effects and sound expert Iain Meadows, and what a relief all round that we spoke. I first asked how the effects were coming along, and Iain was pleased with what had been developed so far as a noise for the village guardian, Rover, that of a roar with an underlying hum. The original 'Rover roar' for the original TV series was, of course, a sound developed in several parts, with the main roar provided by the slow-motion sound of a man screaming (in the lecture hall of the London School of Physics) followed by the reverse-playing of a monks' chorus ("Prisoner" research trailblazer Steven Ricks had unearthed all this info, of course, when making his "Prisoner" documentary videos in the 1980s and 1990s).
However, alarm bells immediately rang when Iain mentioned that they had "discovered" (via a certain not-to-be-relied-upon-organisation) that the original noise was "a lion's roar", so they had isolated such a roar and were working with it. The correct 'man's scream' was then quickly located by Iain and I on youtube, much to Iain and Nick's gratitude and delight, and accuracy prevailed! Iain was most grateful; "I am a fan myself and I have got the DVDs and have watched interviews with McGoohan... you do want it to be as good as can be, because as a fan you want to go 'wow'". I had perhaps earned my freebie attendance!
An interesting discussion then ensued as to the difficulties, years later, or trying to create new versions of existing effects, and it must be said that the underlying 'Rover hum' was wonderfully realised, and that, now armed with the correct background information, could further develop the noise of the guardian: "When you're trying to figure out how people have done it, you're kind of reverse engineering it", said Iain, "I think we did pretty well to get that bass sound, and we [Iain and Nick] were both happy."
Iain (centre) and Nick (right).
So that was it, time to drive back to sunny Wales (with some Big Finish productions lined up in the multi-CD-changer for the motorway journey back). The performers and Nick were all very kind to sign TWO promo flyers for the box set, and these will be auctioned off in due course to raise money for Ty Gobaith Hospice.
It was a great experience. Hats off to all the performers, who I thank so much for their kindness, and time, and for Nick for the invitation and for being such a kind host. I will leave the last word to him; "I love The Prisoner, and I wouldn't want to do anything that undermined that." You certainly didn't, Nick, you certainly didn't.
For a full review of "The Prisoner" box set by Big Finish, click HERE. Keep an eye on the main news page of The Unmutual Website for future news and developments!
Photos on this page (c) Rick Davy, not to be reproduced without permission.
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