Ford's Theatre, Washington. Friday 14th April, 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The place, the date and the event which made history. Or did it? Someone has been tampering with time, muddying the waters of history for his own purposes. Time itself is out of joint and the chief culprit is the enigmatic Doctor Knox. Somehow the Doctor and Evelyn must put history back on track before the future dissolves into chaos. But Knox, it turns out, may be the least of their worries...
Illustration by Anthony Dry
Assassin in the Limelight was the first Big Finish Doctor Who story that I worked on to be released. Starring Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor and BAFTA-nominated Leslie Phillips as our somehow lovable antagonist, I was keen to begin. As my debut into the production process of a two hour audio drama, I had to learn quickly and think on my feet to combat any problem that may arise. It was a challenging start!
The script arrived and I read it twice. The first time was a straight read-through because I like to read it as I would a book so that I can take in the plot. It is important to get a handle on the story before starting work on anything else because if, as a sound designer and composer, you don't understand the story it could go horribly wrong. Fortunately director Barnaby Edwards was on hand to help with any questions from a first-time sound designer, and he was amazing. On the second reading I made notes on over 300 sound effects written in the script using specially prepared A5 sheets and also made notes on the ones that were verbally suggested by characters. Now it was time to crack on with the bulk of the work and record each sound effect from scratch.
Living in the Nottinghamshire countryside is great for these historical stories. Not only can I find everything needed on my doorstep, I can also record outside without traffic being a problem. On the other hand, I live inside the boundary of Sherwood Forest, which means a lot of trees! Leaves blowing in the wind can often be mistaken for background hiss. There were a few horses in this script and I know a few people with stables in local villages far enough away from main roads to gather decent recordings of various horse sounds. The horse used was amazing! He did everything I wanted on cue and perfectly timed. Who said never work with animals? Other sound gathering included recording shrubs for a TARDIS, which was fairly easy, and a lot of theatre interior sounds such as footsteps on stage. The best place for this was the village hall where I used various footwear for characters on stage and used objects lying around to create trapdoors and wooden wheels.
For this story I had to create the sounds of a TARDIS that was more advanced than the Doctor's. These sounds were imaginatively based loosely on the Rani's TARDIS in the television story The Mark of the Rani. Knox's TARDIS was described very similarly to the one in that story. At one point the Doctor is ties to a wooden spinning wheel used in circus tricks. Instead of exploring the county for one I noticed that the sound my toilet roll holder made when you wobbled it was very close to what an old wooden wheel would sound like when spinning.
Working on exterior TARDIS sounds for Assassin in the Limelight with the help of my good friend Daniel Lacey.
First Portable Recorder
The Zoom H4 Handy Recorder was my first portable device. Very useful for high quality sound gathering.
I hate sound libraries! I can't stand using them and if I must it is only as a last resort. I prefer creating my own original sound design and the main reason for this...immersion! In my opinion, the worst thing to hear in any audio production whether it's television, film or radio is a sound effect you recognise from somewhere else. It instantly pushes you out of the drama and into awareness that it is a production with actors, false sets and fake sounds. A prime example of this for me personally is the television series Smallville. During the later seasons there was a sound effect used when Kryptonian crystals or keys are activated. The sound that the audio editors used instantly took the immersive experience away from me. This was simply because I knew it was the same sound used in the N64 game Perfect Dark when you capture the hill on a multi-player game! Surely I'm not the only person to notice. To keep listeners immersed in the world that is presented to them, recording original sound for each production is the only way to go in my opinion. If, on rare occasion, I have to use a library of pre-recorded sound I would alter it in such a way to disguise the original sound if I can. This gives less chance of a listener recognising that sound and thus being taken out of the action. Another argument is that creating your own sounds gives you the freedom to produce exactly what is required. It may take more work but I prefer it this way.
It was hard the first time I composed music for an audio drama because I was aware of the time limitations. I had 6 months to complete this story from start to finish and my work on the Dalek stage plays couldn't have prepared me for it. I spent a good 7 months on the music for each stage play and I only had 2 months for a story that is much longer. Assassin in the Limelight is a 2-disc release of 4 episodes, each with a running time of 30 minutes. The best thing I could do is treat it as I would a film and instead of composing long, dull pieces like some composers in audio production I allowed the sound design to shine through and compose music for the key moments in the story. I like making music this way and it creates a more interesting listening experience. Most of the music was slow yet insightful. It did what music is designed to do; enhance emotion and drive direction. My favourite cue is during the flash-forward assassination sequence. I treated this narrated scene like a love story because you could say Knox is in love with manipulating historic events. Using a delicate string motif seemed most appropriate until the real action of that terrible night begins.
What the critics say...
"On balance, Assassin in the Limelight is a delightful play in almost every respect. The script; the performances; the production… all marvellous." www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk
Based in Nottingham, UK