By Alasdair Stuart
Bernice Summerfield is one of the greatest things to come out of Doctor Who’s first half century. Created by Paul Cornell, Bernice is a polite, British Indiana Jones of a character. Tough, moralistic, occasionally boozy and wonderfully incapable of avoiding trouble Bernice has been around a while now and her adventures have got a little convoluted. It’s time for a new start, a new way to introduce listeners to one of the all-time greats. It’s time for a Revolution, and Guy Adams is one of the writers leading it. I talked to him about Doctor Who, Bernice and exploding pigs.
Alasdair Stuart: Guy Adams, you are an author of stuff. A tremendous amount of stuff. Please tell us about some of that stuff. And by the way the statue of limitations has passed and you’re no longer contractually obliged to mention Gene Hunt unless you want to.
Guy Adams: I would never moan about the brut-infested git, writing books in his voice got me started in this business. It has to be said though, after a few years I was feeling like I’d become a gag writer for Jim Davidson. That’s not healthy so I was glad to see the back of him.
I’ve written far too many things, just ask my mother, she’s read them all. It’s knocking-on for thirty books. I clearly need a hobby. Or just to spend some time with my partner who has to be reminded of my name whenever I step out of the office.
I started predominately in tie-in fiction, the Life On Mars stuff obviously, a couple of Torchwood novels and adaptions of old Hammer movies. These days I’m mainly writing original novels and comics. Not because I have any prejudice against tie-in work, it’s all good fun to this foolish word-miner, purely because that’s the way my career went.
I’m the author of the Deadbeat novels from Titan books, the Heaven’s Gate trilogy from Solaris and The Clown Service series from Del Rey UK. Weird crime, bizarre westerns and crazy spies. Clearly I have no intention of growing up.
In comics I’ve written for 2000AD, reviving Grant Morrison’s Ulysses Sweet – Maniac for Hire, plus a couple of one-off pieces and a forthcoming three-part piece of grisly voodoo-punk. I’m also the writer of The Engine from Madefire and co-created Goldtiger, a creator-owned book with Jimmy Broxton.
This is becoming a tedious list and I haven’t mentioned Sherlock Holmes. Suffice it to say I’ve written a fair few books and stories with him in too.
AS: How did you first meet Professor Bernice Summerfield?
GA: I first met her in a bookshop in York. It was 1992 and she was introduced to me by Paul Cornell and Lee Sullivan. I fell in love with her immediately and have pursued her relentlessly ever since. An interplanetary restraining order was issued but I evaded it with a succession of false passports and brilliant, stick-on beards.
I first met Lisa Bowerman (Benny’s ‘voice on Earth’) at a Doctor Who convention in Coventry. It was 1998 and I was introduced to her by Jacqueline Rayner and Nicholas Briggs (Cornell was hovering in the background, naturally). I fell in love with her immediately and have listened to recordings of her voice ever since. A restraining order has yet to be issued but only because I never give my real name over the phone and the police can’t trace the calls.
AS: Tell us a little about her…
GA: Bernice is an archeologist from the 26th Century. A wonderful, warm, witty character whose many adventures have been a joy to behold.
For many years she traveled in time and space with that errant Timelord, The Doctor, but she eventually left him and went on to pastures new. She has fought monsters, saved planets, drunk cocktails, excavated temples, loved and lost her way across the universe for over two decades. She is, quite simply, one of my very favourite fictional people and I challenge anyone not to meet her and end up saying the same.
She was created by Paul Cornell as a companion for the Seventh Doctor in Virgin Publishing’s glorious series of New Adventures novels. When Virgin lost their license to publish Doctor Who books, Benny was too glorious to lose so, for a couple of years, they continued to release books with her as the star.
Big Finish, fine purveyors of dreams for the ears, launched as a production company of audio dramas with Bernice Summerfield.
(Of course, in the many years since they’ve branched out rather, Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel, The Avengers, Blake’s 7, Dark Shadows…Their range is expansive, if one of my cats walked in and informed me they were to be the star of a new box set of audio plays I wouldn’t be the least surprised. I’d buy them too because Big Finish are terribly good at what they do).
Since then, Big Finish have produced countless Benny audio adventures as well as novels and story collections. The audios feature Lisa Bowerman in the role and a major part of Benny’s continued success falls on her shoulders as she’s breathed constant fresh life into the character. Lisa nails everything from comedy to horror, happiness to tragedy. Frankly, trowel aside, she IS Benny.
AS: Big Finish have done a great job of exploring the various corners of the Doctor Who universe, but none of them are quite as well defined and idea heavy, it seems, as Bernice’s. Why do you think that is?
GA: Well, without wanting to be awkward I’m not sure I altogether agree. I’m a big fan of a number of their ranges. Which sounds like awful PR-led toadying, I know, but it’s sincerely meant. For the five or six years between them launching their audio range and the show returning to our screens, Big Finish WERE Doctor Who and engendered a considerable devotion from folk like me.
I suppose the Benny plays are the longest of their spin-off ranges and have therefore had a greater acreage to play in. Also, they have been able to develop entirely free of contradicting anything else. Considering the main Doctor Who range is restricted to past doctors, they’ve managed to be terribly inventive but Bernice is always looking to the future and doesn’t have a pesky TV series to beware of.
It’s certainly also true that there’s a breadth to the character that has allowed her stories to cover a wide range of tone and content.
In this latest box set we open with a wonderful, fast-paced comedy from Nev Fountain (of Dead Ringers and Private Eye fame). It’s a brilliant adventure with Sylvester McCoy having a whale of a time playing companion to Lisa Bowerman’s Benny. The brilliant Miles Jupp also has an indecent amount of fun as the villain.
From that we move to Una McCormack’s darker, more emotional script, with Benny exploring the ruins of an ancient labyrinth in the company of Sheila Reid and Cabin Pressure’s John Finnemore. It’s an eerie, sorrowful story and as different to the first as you can imagine.
Then some idiot (me) offers The Really Weird One (©) which finds Benny trapped on a forbidden world. A planet caught in a malfunctioning time lock where events are repeated every twenty-four hours. Yes, like Groundhog Day except really, really not. Those trapped on the planet have to rely on information from their portable cameras which record their every move, storing the footage in extra-temporal cloud storage so it’s not wiped when the planet loops. The entire play is presented through this, occasionally unreliable and contradictory footage.
Finally James Goss, producer of the whole series and Champion of All, offers the most thoughtful and horrifying Dalek story you can imagine.
It’s a real mixture, laughs, explosions, tears and DALEKS.
AS: The Bernice stories have always had an interesting combination of standalone and internal continuity to their plotting. Where does yours fall on that scale?
GA: This set is very intentionally intended as something a complete novice could enjoy. If you’ve never heard any of Benny’s adventures before (or, indeed, read any of her books) then you’ll be fine. James was determined to create a set that long-time fans and new listeners would relish equally and he’s annoyingly clever so has succeeded admirably.
It’s other key difference of course is that it features The Doctor and Ace. It’s not set during the time when they were all travelling together, this is the present day for Benny, but The Doctor appears with a mission for Benny and she has no choice but to leap back into the fray.
AS:Are you free to use any bits of Who lore or is some stuff out of bounds?
GA: Some Doctor Who characters are owned by the BBC, some are owned by the individual writers or their estates. Still, as long as they featured in the classic series (rather than anything since its 2005 revival) there’s usually a deal that can be done.
Big Finish have always been forward thinking in their approach though, it’s fun to revisit old enemies but it’s not something they get bogged down in. This set features the Daleks, yes, but only because James had a really inventive and important Dalek story he wanted to tell.
AS: You’ve done Who audio work before. How does writing Bernice differ from your previous work?
GA: The other play I’ve done for Big Finish was part of their Iris Wildthyme range. That was more comedic. Iris Wildthyme is an eccentric Northerner and alcohol-enthusiast who travels with her companion, Panda in a time-travelling London Bus. It featured William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and saw Iris battling trans-dimensional pig monsters. It’s tone couldn’t have been more different.
At no point in Random Ghosts, my Benny play, did I ask anyone to recreate the sound of catapulted pigs exploding off brick walls.
That said, the process is much the same, making up aural fantasies, just less porcine.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance writer, and host of Pseudopod , a weekly horror fiction podcast. He also writes RPG products professionally and the 6th Doctor Sourcebook, written by him, is out now. Find on Twitter at @AlasdairStuart.