Jude Constable and Jackie Emery
Ken Bentley is a drama director, working primarily in audio and theatre. His work for Big Finish includes many Doctor Who audio dramas, the latest release being the full-cast Eldrad Must Die! starring Peter Davison as the Doctor. For Big Finish's Blakes 7 audio range, he directed the full-cast Warship and the 3-part epic The Armageddon Storm, as well as episodes of the forthcoming Liberator Chronicles Volumes 5 and 6 and Paul Darrow's narration of his novel, Lucifer. We started by asking Ken about his background...
HORIZON: Can you tell us about your career in directing?
KB: I went to drama school to train as a director and started work assisting on various theatre productions, as well as directing a few shows of my own. Text is my strength (rather than physical theatre, musicals or dance) and my experience has always been on text-based plays. I used to get work assisting on musicals and opera specifically to work with the cast on dialogue scenes. So if Iím known for anything technically, itís text. Iíve also taught text to actors in training, including heightened language plays such as Shakespeare. Genre work, such as science fiction, came later, but has eclipsed the rest.
HORIZON: How did you come to join Big Finish?
KB: One of the first plays I directed was a production of The Speckled Band. Itís (if memory serves) the only Sherlock Holmes play Conan Doyle adapted himself. An actor I know produced the play with me, and he was playing the villain. When it came to finding an actor to play the lead, he suggested a chap heíd just worked with in the summer rep season at The Theatre Royal, Nottingham. It was Nicholas Briggs. That was over ten years ago. I think, coincidentally, at the time Nick was also working on the very first Big Finish release. The Speckled Band was a fun experience and Nick and I stayed in touch. Then, when he took over as executive producer at Big Finish, he phoned me and asked if Iíd be interested in directing audio plays. I remember telling him I didnít have any experience of directing audio and was he sure I was the right person for the job? In typical Briggs fashion, he replied: ďI wouldnít have asked you if I wasnít.Ē
HORIZON: Have you directed any of Big Finish's enhanced audio books (which comprise a main narrator plus dialogue scenes with a secondary character) or do you specialise in full-cast audio dramas?
KB: Iím mainly booked to work on the full-cast productions, but I have worked on some of the enhanced audios and talking books. But mostly the enhanced audios Iíve worked on are in fact two-handed plays Ė rather than strictly enhanced audio Ė so itís my experience of working with actors on dramatic texts that Iím mostly booked for.
HORIZON: Can you tell us what directing for audio involves? At what point do you come on board? What sort of things are discussed between you, the producer and the writers during pre-production? Do you have any input into the script?
KB: Where I come on board a production really depends on how busy we all are. Over time I started working earlier and earlier in the process, to the point where Iíve sometimes been involved in the development of the script from outline stage. But I direct quite a few productions for Big Finish and so the busier my recording schedule is, the less involved I get in reading early drafts. If I have a really busy recording schedule then the first I hear of a production could be the final draft script. But if a play is technically challenging for any reason, then Iím normally asked to contribute to the development of the idea, just so we know that whatís written is achievable in the studio.
Horizon: Apart from main actors reprising their roles, in both Doctor Who and Blake's 7, to what extent are you involved in casting new characters? Can you tell us what's involved in that process?
KB: Mostly it's my responsibility to cast the plays I work on for Big Finish, but sometimes other people work with me. On the Blake's 7 range, David Richardson and I share the responsibility. He has a very good eye (and ear) for casting, and he's very good at spotting actors that will connect with our core audience. Big Finish rarely hold auditions. They'll only do so for new long-running characters, such as companions for the Doctor.
We use Spotlight and agents' websites to find actors, and we listen to voice clips. The most important thing is to cast an appropriate voice for the role. We work with a large core of actors regularly. We work with them because they're very good at audio work and they have a good vocal range. But there's also a practical benefit to working with actors regularly. We work very quickly. We have fun, and we enjoy the work, but it's fast work. If the cast was made up entirely of actors new to the process it might be quite daunting for them. But if the cast is a mix of regulars and newcomers, then the regulars help to create a reassuring and relaxed atmosphere. I like to think of our regular actors (unofficially) as the Big Finish Ensemble.
We're very aware of release dates and we try to make sure that no one actor is cropping up across too many simultaneous or consecutive releases, particularly in the same range. And we're always listening out for new voices and doing what we can to make sure we give the audience as much variety as possible.
HORIZON: Do you meet the cast before the actual recording session - are there rehearsals or a read-through?
KB: The cast and I donít meet before recording, and thereís no rehearsal before getting into the studio. We record a scene at a time and we read through each scene before recording it. Most actors are used to the demands of audio and come prepared, so we can make quick choices as we work.
HORIZON: Are the scenes recorded in story order? Or, as with film, are they recorded out of sequence and subsequently put together by an editor?
KB: It's very rare that we'll record all the scenes in the order they appear in the script. Sometimes, with smaller cast productions, it's possible to do so, but with full cast plays it's impossible. I try to make my recording schedules make as much sense as I can, so the cast can keep on top of where they are in the story, but (for many reasons) sometimes schedules can be a little complex. As the schedule is entirely down to me, it's very much my responsibility to help the cast navigate a complicated schedule.
HORIZON: How does one direct an audio performance, which is reliant on voice alone, compared to stage or screen?
KB: Directing voice work is a surprisingly similar experience to directing theatre or film. We use the microphone in much the same way one uses the stage or the camera. We can have a close-up or a wide shot, we can have entrances and exits. Where one might use light to create atmosphere in a theatre, we can use sound (both how we capture it and how we treat it in post-production) to do the same on audio. The way I work and communicate with actors is essentially the same. The only difference in audio is the microphone. Itís a magical device and, used well, can be a wonderfully expressive tool. Actors who can confidently manipulate a microphoneís proximity effect can do the most magnificent work. However, the microphone does expose every detail in the voice, so the only thing we have to listen out for during recording is that we get accurate takes. In film and television they have the benefit of ADR (re-recording or adding additional dialogue lines during post production), and in theatre thereís always tomorrow night!
HORIZON: With full-cast audios - and limited space in the recording studio - how many actors can you record together in one scene?
KB: The number of actors we can record in any one scene is entirely dependent on the number of booths or microphones we have available. As a rule, we try to make sure all our scenes contain the maximum number of actors we can accommodate at one time, but if a scene has more characters than we have microphones then I'll break the scene down into sections that each contain the right number of characters and record each section in turn. Sometimes not even on the same day Ė but I try to avoid doing that if I can.
HORIZON: What gives an audio recording its ďfeelĒ? To what extent is that down to the director and/or how much is it down to the FX, music and the input of others?
KB: The feel of a production is very much a team effort. Everybody contributes. Itís my job to make sure I cast appropriate voices; mine and the recording engineerís job to make sure what we record serves the story; and the sound designer and composerís job to create appropriate effects and music. I work very collaboratively and give everyone the opportunity to contribute fully to the production. Ultimately, itís my responsibility to make sure that everything we do is appropriate and to a high standard, but I try to make it as collaborative an environment as I can. Itís rare that Iíll step in and say ďNo, Iíd like it like this.Ē There are one or two occasions when Iíve felt strongly that Iíd like a particular style of score (for example), but itís not often Iím that prescriptive. Normally, if you get appropriate people to work on the production, then they make appropriate choices and contributions and it all comes together quite effortlessly!
HORIZON: Does the director get involved in the post production stages? Are you consulted about the sound design and music?
KB: Iím very much involved in post-production. (Iím sure sometimes sound designers and composers wish I wasnít as involved as I am!). Itís my job to make sure the story is as exciting and entertaining for the audience as possible, and so itís my responsibility to work on every stage of a production to ensure it comes together as a whole. Itís not about controlling the work thatís done, but about taking creative responsibility for the overall production. I have to know every choice thatís been made and why itís been made, and I need to approve every choice so that, when the production gets to the audience, I can take full responsibility for it. Not the glory Ė that goes to whoever it was who did the work thatís being praised. But if the audience arenít happy with anything then itís my fault, because I let it through. Of course, Iíd rather the audience were delighted, so I try to make sure each production is as good as it can possibly be.
HORIZON: To what extent are you able to suggest changes during the production?
KB: I can suggest changes at any stage during the production. But I try not to dictate what I think the change should be. Mostly Iíll suggest that an improvement could be made, then ask the appropriate person or people what they think they can do to improve it. Unless I feel that I have a strong idea of what the change could be, in which case Iíll offer it, but not demand that it has to be done my way.
HORIZON: Having directed many Dr Who stories for Big Finish, how did you come to join the Blakes 7 team - did you volunteer or were you invited?
KB: David invited me to join the Blakeís 7 team. Warship was my first Blakeís 7 production and I think I was asked to direct because it was full-cast, and because it was the first time the original cast had been reunited.
HORIZON: What do you find are the differences between directing Dr Who and directing Blakes 7?
KB: The primary difference is that one series has a leading role and the other an ensemble cast. That makes the weight of material and cast responsibilities very different. With a leading role, where thereís a lot of responsibility on one or two actors, Iíll try to schedule it so that I give the leads a suitable number of breaks or generous call times, so Iím not working them unnecessarily hard. With an ensemble cast thatís something I can worry less about, since the material is generally more evenly distributed. And while there can be similarities between the two story worlds, itís fair to say there are more unusual vocal requirements in Doctor Who and generally more high concept and large scale sci-fi action in Blakeís 7, so casting Doctor Who can often be quite challenging. You wouldnít believe how hard it can be to cast alien creatures!
HORIZON: Are you a fan of Blakes 7?
KB: Iím very careful about my use of the word Ďfaní, particularly to describe myself. I think one needs an advanced level of knowledge about a given story world to be called a fan. So I wouldnít like to describe myself as a fan. But I watched Blakes 7 when it was on the telly, and very much enjoyed it. I like science fiction as a genre. Iíd say Iím a fan of the genre, but for the reason Iíve outlined above, I couldnít say Iím a fan of any particular sci-fi franchise.
HORIZON: Regarding the writers of Warship and The Armageddon Storm, did you find there was a difference between working with Peter Anghelides, who is an ďoldĒ fan and well versed in canon, as opposed to Mark Wright and Cavan Scott, who might be described as new to the series?
KB: Thereís no difference from my point of view. Theyíre all great writers writing fantastic scripts.
HORIZON: What preparation did you do to get a feel for the characters and storylines? For Warship, did you watch the episodes that precede and follow it? And for The Armageddon Storm, did you watch the episodes featuring Del and Anna Grant?
KB: I consciously didnít go back to watch anything in preparation for Warship and Armageddon Storm. I rarely do when recreating a show, story world or character. I will if I absolutely have to know an important technical detail, as I did recently with Eldrad Must Die! But generally any important story connection between whatís gone before and the story weíre telling now will be in the script. Actors that have created characters on a high profile show such as Blakeís 7 know what they need to do with those characters. And the right sound designer for the job will know how to create appropriate effects. Authenticity is something weíre all collectively trying to achieve, but itís not my job to tell everyone how to be authentic. Itís my job to make sure the story is as entertaining as it can possibly be Ė now and on audio.
HORIZON: Was there a cast read-through or rehearsal for Warship?
KB: There wasnít a cast read-through for Warship. Sadly, audio budgets rarely stretch to such luxuries.
HORIZON: With regard to the recording of Warship, can you tell us about the measures you took in allowing extra time for the cast to chat and catch up with each other?
KB: I always allow a little time for casts to bond before we start work. Itís important that everybody gets to know each other and get comfortable. If everyone can find some common ground and a shared sense of humour before the work begins, it means everyone can enjoy themselves once they knuckle down. Warship was an unusual recording in as much as theyíd all worked with each other before, but hadnít necessarily seen each other for some time, so it was important to allow them the time to reconnect. We record quickly. But I try not to make it feel like weíre in a rush to get things done, or to make it feel like a chore. What Iím after is a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. It was a pleasure to watch them all meet again after so long and to relax into each otherís company.
HORIZON: Armageddon Storm is a three-part epic, that includes narration, two-handed scenes and actors playing more than one role. How do you approach directing something like that, compared with the full-cast Warship?
KB: Thereís a technical discipline to recording narration versus straight dialogue. Narration needs to be crisp and clear, and thereís no post-production effect that will give us some latitude with regards to what we record. It has to be recorded well. So that requires a little additional focus during recording. Other than that, enhanced audios are much like full-cast productions. And doubling up is much like casting a large number of individual roles Ė what weíre after is contrast and range, so the audience can clearly determine that itís different characters speaking.
HORIZON: Prior to The Armageddon Storm, the main Blakeís 7 cast had already reprised their roles in previous Liberator Chronicles stories. Conversely, Tom Chadbon hadnít played Del Grant since he appeared in the one episode Countdown, 30-odd years ago. Did you have to take a different approach with him?
KB: When an actorís created a role, theyíre pretty good at recalling what they did, or spotting during a take when they havenít quite been accurate in their portrayal of the character, even if itís a character they played once, thirty years ago! I make sure an actor has the time to think about what theyíre going to do before a scene, and I make sure theyíre happy before we move on. I never want an actor to feel like Iím rushing them. Itís important they feel happy and supported.
The writerís contribution to this process is key. If theyíve written the character accurately on the page, then itís much easier for the actor to recreate the character. Big Finish writers are all very good at writing clear characters that actor and audiences can recognise. Itís a skill. Not all writers can do it. Weíre very lucky at Big Finish.
HORIZON: With something like Blakes 7, where there is an original tone to follow, to what extent do you need to keep an eye on pace, style and ďfeelĒ?
KB: All drama production starts with the script. The script development process will ensure whatís written has the appropriate pace, style and feel. My job is then to communicate the script the best possible way we can using the audio tools at our disposal. I firmly believe weíre not in the business of trying to copy the televisual experience, but to offer the audience what feels to them like an authentic experience, but in an audio format. That often requires us to do things on audio that they wouldnít or couldnít do on television. But the audience shouldnít be left thinking ďTheyíd never have done that on TV!Ē, they should be left feeling that the listening experience was as satisfying to them as the visual experience was or still is.
HORIZON: What are you most pleased with from the Blakes 7 pieces youíve directed?
KB: Always the most important thing to me is that the audience are satisfied when they listen to a production. Warship was tricky in as much as it sits (chronologically) between two existing episodes from the original television series. I was very happy to hear that the Blakeís 7 fans felt weíd made an appropriate contribution to the world of Blakeís 7 by filling in that gap.
Armageddon Storm was newer territory. It didnít have to Ďfit iní quite so seamlessly with what had gone before. It couldnít. Itís storytelling on a scale they just couldnít do on television at that time. Theyíd struggle even now. So it had a different job to do, but the listeners still needed to be satisfied that this new scale of storytelling felt appropriate. Thatís where I really appreciate the hard work from the regular cast. The characters are the link between the listeners' love of the original series and the telling of new and very visual stories on audio. Itís the cast and these wonderful characters that take the audience on that journey. What makes me happy is that the listeners are embracing this new experience and responding very positively to what weíre producing.
HORIZON: Do you think that two different directors directing the same Blakes 7 script for audio would produce recordings that sounded very similar or that sound quite different? And why?
KB: Thatís a very good question. Given that the cast know better than anyone how to play their roles, and given that the core soundscape needs a clearly identifiable flavour, Iíd say there should be similarities, but there would also be some differences. Directors and actors will collaborate in a moment to interpret a scene in a particular way. Put another director together with the same cast and Iím sure thereís the chance theyíd collectively make different choices. So to answer your question Ė yes and no!
HORIZON: Youíve directed episodes for Liberator Chronicles Volumes 5 and 6, which are due out later this year. Is there anything you can tell us either about the process so far, or the recording sessions?
KB: The recordings went well. I don't like to say too much about upcoming releases. Mainly because Iím ahead of the curve with regards to whatís current, so I can too easily let the cat out of the bag if Iím not careful! I will say that theyíre all very different in tone. Whatís been fun is seeing how the writers are beginning to explore styles of storytelling as they explore the different situations the team now find themselves in. So weíre seeing Blakeís 7 embrace everything from space opera to thriller to psychological drama. And seeing stories told from new perspectives and points of view. Itís an indication of how expansive the Blakeís 7 story world can be.
HORIZON: You directed Paul Darrow's reading of his book, Lucifer. Can you tell us what it was like directing this? It must be very different from directing full cast dramas.
KB: Narrative recordings are very different to drama. But to be honest, when an actor is as talented and on top of their craft as Paul is, my job becomes almost administrative. I schedule the recording to make sure we can do what we need in the time we have. I make sure we're working at a steady pace, but not too quickly. Narrating a novel (for the reader) is a lot of very hard work and it takes discipline and concentration, so I try to make sure the reader is relaxed, enjoying their time in the studio, hydrated and taking enough breaks. After that it's simply about being a second ear along with the recording engineer to make sure we get crisp, clean takes.
Every time I work with Paul it's a little like being paid to witness a masterclass in acting and voice work. Not only is he a lovely man to work with, he's really very, very good at his job.
HORIZON: Apart from sci fi audio drama, what else do you like to direct?
KB: Iím very lucky to be part of a team of people who teach Shakespeare to actors in training so, on a regular basis, I get to dive into the works of Shakespeare and learn from his genius. Heís not just a magnificent writer Ė heís such a good writer that heís also a fantastic director, movement director and actor, all wrapped up into one document that still speaks to us (actors and audience alike) hundreds of years later. Itís a joy to explore his work. Theyíd make great audio plays. Iíd love to record the First Folio in its entirety. But the cast sizes are so big there arenít many producers that could make it work economically. Pity.
But mostly Iím a story junkie and I like stories of all shapes and sizes. Thatís one of the good things about working on Doctor Who Ė at times it doesnít even feel like sci-fi. I love film noir, and Iím still trying to persuade Big Finish to let me make an audio in the style of a film noir (I think Matthew Sweet should write it.) And I love comedy. Many of my theatre productions have been comedies and Iíd like to direct more comedy.
Most directors specialise in one discipline. Iíve been lucky enough to move quite effortlessly between theatre and audio. Iíd like film to be part of the mix, and thatís something Iím pursuing at the moment.
HORIZON: Can you tell us about any other projects that youíre involved with at the moment?
KB: I wish I could, but unfortunately most things Iím working on (while Iím working on them) are top secret. Itís the cause of much frustration for me. Iíd love to tell you about a number of exciting projects that are in the pipeline, but then Iíd have to kill you!
HORIZON: And finally, the silly question we ask all our interviewees. If you could take a Blakes 7 character to a bar, who would you take, and why?
KB: Servalan. Iím a sucker for a witty put-down.
HORIZON: Thank you very much for the interview and for your time.
KB: No problem. I enjoyed doing it.
Ken's website is at: kenbentley.com
Cast photographs courtesy of Big Finish
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