Professor Bernice Summerfield, trowel-wielding space archeologist, has been digging up trouble for twenty-three years now. Avoiding gunfire and successful romantic relationships with equal aplomb. She used to travel with that notorious Time Lord and adventurer the Doctor. Now, it seems she may be again.
For the first six years of her fictional existence, Benny’s voice was up to the imagination of the reader as she was a mainstay of Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures range of Doctor Who novels. Since 1998, launching Big Finish as an audio production company with a series of full-cast adventures, she’s sounded like Lisa Bowerman.
After sixteen years and over eighty adventures in your ears, Lisa Bowerman now IS Benny, and she’s back in a box set of four stories that will appeal to new listeners as well as the many fans that have followed her exploits since the early nineties.
THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BERNICE SUMMERFIELD sees her reunited with her old travelling companions. The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) needs her help, Ace (Sophie Aldred) has gone missing and only Benny has the skills needed to find her. From comedic, high adventure to ghostly encounters and a planet lost in time she will eventually find herself facing the worst creatures the Universe has to offer: the Daleks.
The writer of the first story, The Revolution, is Nev Fountain, who kindly agreed to submit to a little gentle interrogation.
BFS: Hi Nev, thanks for joining us. For the benefit of the poor, lonely chap at the back that’s not familiar with your career, tell us a little about yourself.
NF: I’m Nev Fountain. I’m a writer. Which is a lot like being a human cannonball. In the sense that anyone can put human cannonball/writer on their passport, but the amount of time a day he/she is actually doing the human cannonball/writing thing is a couple of minutes a day, and if the act of human cannonballing/writing is witnessed by an audience, people wonder if that is a proper job, and aren’t you just dicking about?
I write stuff for radio, television and magazines. I work for ‘Private Eye’ full time and I’m a principal writer on Dead Ringers, which is returning to radio 4 soon. I also write crime novels. I’ve done three so far, collectively called ‘The Mervyn Stone Mysteries’ and I’m intending to write more, or to put it another way, I’m doing this interview to avoid writing more crime novels.
BFS: Always happy to help. You’ve written a number of plays for Big Finish but this is your first featuring Bernice. Having listened to it, you clearly enjoyed it. What is it about Benny that makes her a fun character to write?
NF: I like fallible characters; they’re great fun. Benny talks too much, she likes a drink, she’s clever and stupid at the same time, and she’s fun when she’s caught on the back foot. She gets things wrong, even when she’s right. She can be dynamic one minute and a gibbering idiot the next. In Sci-fi we call that a ‘well rounded character’.
NF: Absolutely not. It’s a completely fresh, no need to know backstory, take on the Benny character. People should not be afraid. There will not be an exam after listening.
BFS: ‘The Revolution’offers a twist on the character of the seventh Doctor, how did that come about and what challenges did it create?
NF: The Doctor is effectively playing the companion to Benny in my story, which is something that James [Goss, the producer of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield] wanted, and I thought sounded fun to do.
It’s more difficult than it seems, actually. It’s difficult to create a situation where the all-powerful Doctor is helpless and subordinate to other forces, and is the one asking everyone else what’s going on. I modelled it on that feeling experienced when a rational intelligent educated man suddenly realises that his i-Phone has 2% battery left. We used to say civilization was three meals away from anarchy; now it’s two-thirds of a day without a charger.
BFS: The play also adopts a fun, alternative stance on the subject of Creationism. Where did that idea come from?
NF: I always like listening to different views on things. I practice listening to ‘Any Questions’ and agreeing vigorously with every member of the panel. Playing Devil’s advocate keeps things interesting.
I am naturally sympathetic to atheism, so to be contrary, I wrote a story and made the religious types into the reasonable ones and the scientists into zealots. It’s a very boring world when you write to re-inforce your own opinions all the time.
Just as we have ‘niche’ marketing now, little corners of the world create their own hermetically sealed truths. There’s bits of the US that pretends that creationism is true, with their bonkers museums and home schooling and ‘teach the controversy’ nonsense, but it would be a tedious story if I just repeated that outrage.
It throws the madness into sharp relief when you create a world where science is king, and other points of view, no matter how harmless, are looked on as dangerous.
It was originally called ‘Benny and the Art of Hoverbike Maintenance’, which is a pisstake on ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that tried to juxtapose the ‘romantic’ and the ‘problem solving’ worlds. If you replace ‘romantic’ with ‘religious’ and ‘problem solving’ with ‘science’, then that was my starting point with Arviem 2.
BFS: You’re predominantly a comedy writer, do you approach story ideas because of their comedic potential or are the jokes something that you just can’t help adding once you start writing?
NF: Perhaps I did use comedy a lot in the past when I had something to prove as a writer, to make things as sharp and witty as possible, but now I can happily write something which is completely gag free. Have a listen to my Dorian Gray story as an example [THE CONFESSIONS OF DORIAN GRAY is another range produced by Big Finish]. The most important thing for me is story, and the jokes have to serve the story, and if they don’t, I just cut them.
That said, James specifically asked for a ‘bit of a romp’ to kick off the Benny box set, so I approached it in those terms, a lighthearted screwball adventure with lots of running around and explosions and gags. He also mentioned Indiana Jones as something to emulate, so a lot of the set-piece moments in ‘The Revolution’ have echoes of those movies: scenes in a bar, a jungle, a huge temple, etc.
BFS: Some writers talk at length about how science-fiction and fantasy, as well as being exciting for their scope, are useful tools allowing a writer to address everyday subjects from a different angle. Can the same be said of comedy?
NF: I think sci-fi and comedy are inextricably linked, even when the sci-fi is dark and pretty much joke-free. The thing that links them both is satire. Sci-fi, is by definition using the future to comment on the present, and commenting on the present is the definition of satire. Sci-fi is satire, and satire is the gloomy cousin of comedy. it’s all a continuum.
BFS: What advantages does audio offer as a medium as a writer?
NF: Surprise, mainly. Characters can turn up from nowhere, creep up on a scene, and just shout ‘boo’ in the audiences’ ear. It’s like teasing a blind man, which gives me a warm feeling at night.
Scenes can become more fluid and seamless, a conversation can be experienced without distractions like facial expressions and silly hats, and you don’t have to flick your eyes back and forth between characters. Audio is a very intense, intimate experience, like reading a book with it rammed so close to your face that you have to digest every individual word.
BFS: The whole set has a rather wonderful guest cast. The main villain in ‘The Revolution’ is played by Miles Jupp, without wanting to lead your answer too much, how wonderful was he?
NF: Incredibly wonderful and a great actor. Doctor Who and Archie the Inventor in the same studio! If Sherlock Holmes and Willy Wonka turned up too, then I would have probably have exploded in multicoloured rainbows.
NF: ’The Mervyn Stone Mysteries’ are thrillers based in the cult worlds of old telly. My amateur sleuth is Mervyn, an ex script editor of an old science fiction show called ‘Vixens from the Void’. ‘Vixens’ replaced Doctor Who when Michael Grade cancelled it, basically some piece of 80s tat which has huge breasted women in leather spacesuits shouting at even huger-breasted men in leather shorts.
Because ‘Vixens’ has dated incredibly badly, there’s no chance of it making a decent comeback, so Mervyn lives off its embalmed corpse, attending sc-fi conventions, recording DVD commentaries, signing photos in shitty little comic shops, stuff like that.
The great/horrible thing about this world is, you keep jamming actors, directors, writers together in tiny sweaty spaces, decades after they finished on the show. They’re forced to rub shoulders with people they never thought they’d ever see again after working with them for a couple of hours in 1987, and never much liked when they did. A great situation where murders can happen.
And Mervyn, with his script editor’s talent for spotting plot-holes, is very good at spotting ‘whodunnit’.
I’ve written three books so far, ‘Geek Tragedy’, a murder at a wretched sci-fi convention, ‘DVD Extras Include:Murder’ which is an impossible locked room mystery, a murder set during the recording of a DVD commentary, and ‘Cursed Among Sequels’ where they try to reboot ‘Vixens’ for the twenty-first century, with horrific results. I’m writing another one now, called ‘I Dismember the Eighties’, which is on a very timely subject.
BFS: Nev, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
THE NEW ADVENTURE OF BERNICE SUMMERFIELD is available now from Big Finish: http://bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-new-adventures-of-bernice-summerfield-1039?range=94