❉ We chat with Lisa Bowerman, best known for playing Bernice Summerfield and directing many Big Finish audios.
“Watching what Big Finish has grown into has been a joy. I’m just so grateful I’ve been asked to go along with the ride!”
For two decades, Lisa Bowerman has been the embodiment of Professor Bernice ‘Benny’ Summerfield, the most popular Doctor Who character never to have appeared in the show itself. Lisa’s connection with Doctor Who goes back to Survival, the final story of its original run in 1989. With work as a photographer and director complementing acting roles for TV, radio and stage, she’s a true polymath. We Are Cult talked to Lisa about her early days with Big Finish Productions, the joys of living and working in New York City and a good deal more.
In proper dramatic fashion, I’m going to forego the typical questions about drama school and your early career and jump right into the middle of the story. Considering how significant the Bernice Summerfield audios were to what came after, have you ever considered that you’re the most important person in the history of Big Finish?
Ha! I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that, but I do feel lucky to have been in on the ground floor. Watching what Big Finish has grown into has been a joy. I’m just so grateful I’ve been asked to go along with the ride! They always did the right things from the start – took the advice, approached the work professionally, and embraced the fact that creativity was the most important factor. They also love what they do.
How did the role as Benny come about?
Quite by chance. I happened to do an interview for a video called I Was A Doctor Who Monster (because… I suppose I was!) in which I was interviewed by a chap called Gary Russell. A few months after that, my friend Mike Tucker (who’d done visual FX on Survival) asked on behalf of a friend if I’d be interested in playing a character called Professor Bernice Summerfield on audio. He gave me the lowdown on her background and said that Gary was involved. I said there’s was no reason not to say yes…but had no great expectations. Things went very quiet after that.
It seems that it had taken a while to sort the licensing of the character from Virgin Publishing – and the next thing I know, I was asked to audition for the part! I subsequently went along to Nick Briggs’ front room, with an audience of three – him, Gary Russell and Jason Haigh-Ellery – and a microphone strapped to an uplighter! Not hugely encouraging.
I’ve subsequently found out that my name had been suggested to Gary by a friend of his one evening – over a pizza! I’ve a lot to thank him for!
“I’d never recorded before for anything that was edited ‘post production’, so when I finally heard the first episodes I was staggered at the quality. Alistair Lock worked miracles!”
I gather you’d done a fair amount of radio drama? Had you been a fan of that medium prior to working for Big Finish?
I’d done a lot of drama with BBC Radio and a company called Independent Radio Drama Productions (working out of the radio station LBC) before working with Big Finish. I suspect that might have been one of the reasons that I’d been approached in the first place. It did – at the audition stage – feel a bit like a bunch of fanboys in their front rooms with their Casio recorders! To be honest, I wasn’t sure what the final product was going to sound like!
I’d never recorded before, for anything that was edited ‘post production’ so, when I finally heard the first episodes (19 or so years ago!), I was staggered at the quality. I suppose digital recording was pretty much in its infancy in those days, but the editor Alistair Lock who – unencouragingly – had been sitting in the corner of a rather damp basement in Elephant & Castle for that first recording (with a little DAT machine) – worked miracles!
For most of your time playing Benny, you’ve had fairly limited interaction with the Doctors. Was it at all unusual to switch to the larger scale stories with Sylvester and Sophie?
The first ‘crossover’ I did was The Shadow of The Scourge – with Sylvester and Sophie – back in 2000. I suspect I was lucky in this instance – as it was written by Paul Cornell (who’d created Bernice/Benny in the first place) – so the writing was very much geared towards her character’s interaction with The Doctor. I was slightly cautious about the whole thing – as the dynamic between Sophie and Sylv is so tight. I felt a bit like an interloper!
As ever, it’s not really the scale of the story that matters but the quality of the writing. Good drama can be two people or twenty. As long as the writing’s good, it’s all good to work on.
The recent stories with David Warner’s “Unbound” Doctor certainly established a different dynamic between the Doctor and Benny. Did it help that you’d worked with David Warner previously?
Of course it helps if you know a fellow actor well – the work is always easier; especially in the case of David – who is, quite frankly, a legend in the acting industry. My first working encounter with him was back in 2006 working on Sapphire & Steel (for which I directed, and played the role of Ruby). Then, of course, he’s become part of the ‘Big Finish Family’, and we’ve worked together on a number of occasions; Jago & Litefoot and King Lear being the most recent. He’s terrific as the Unbound Doctor though. There’s a great sparring partnership between him and Benny.
I think that’s the strength of the character that Paul Cornell created – she does seem to work well with every incarnation of the Doctor.
“The intensity of two-handers are always great dramatically. There’s simply more time to explore the psychology of characters. In terms of the companions themselves, every actor has relished a chance to stretch their acting limbs, which sometimes were rather restricted in their original television stories.”
How did you expand into directing for Big Finish?
I’ve the writer/actor/producer/director, Nigel Fairs, to blame…sorry…to thank for that! I’d actually been promised some directing work as far back at 1999 – when the company first got the licence for Doctor Who – but it never materialised. You can’t blame them – that licence was like the Holy Grail to the BF boys – they weren’t going to let those chances to direct their heroes go!
My first proper gig was an episode of The Tomorrow People – Spiritus Mundi. My best bet, I thought, was just to get the best actors in I know and let the rest sort itself out….Which, of course – has pretty much been my philosophy since!
I’ve been so lucky; especially now Big Finish has got such a terrific name in the industry. I’ve worked with some extraordinary actors. I’m like a kid in a sweetshop now when it comes to casting.
A lot of your directing work for Big Finish has been in the Companion Chronicles strand for Doctor Who. As a director, is there something you find particularly appealing about that approach to storytelling?
The intensity of two-handers are always great dramatically. There’s simply more time to explore the psychology of characters. I’m not saying you don’t do that in the larger scale productions, but there certainly feels like more time to breathe on these. We’ve had some fantastic scripts over the years. Also, writers have been very clever, playing with the form.
In terms of the companions themselves, every actor has relished a chance to stretch their acting limbs, which sometimes were rather restricted in their original television stories.
Looking at some of your other work, can you talk a bit about The Coming of the Martians? That’s quite a cast you got to work with there.
This one has really been a labour of love for producer Martin Johnson (of Sherwood Sound Studios) and the adapter Nick Scovell. Martin’s been battling away with rights issues for a considerable time before H.G. Wells’ work went out of copyright. He approached me to direct it a while ago – and we finally got it into studio earlier this year. We were blessed with a really fantastic cast – headed up by Colin Morgan, Nigel Lindsay, Ronald Pickup, Dan Starkey and Olivia Poulet, to name but a few. All of them said they were attracted to the quality of the script.
It’s very much a faithful adaptation of the book, as opposed to a ‘re-imagining’. Don’t think there are that many truly faithful productions of the book out there.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before it comes out. There are huge technical challenges with editing something in 5.1 Surround Sound, but I can tell you, at this point, it’s sounding fantastic!
Going back to TV work, having been part of the cast of Casualty at the beginning, was it unusual to come back in a guest role?
That was a funny one. I got a call from my agent quite late one afternoon, asking if I could get to Elstree for a casting for Casualty later that day. Of course, I went along. Have to say – I’d been very out of work at that point – so didn’t go into the fact, that perhaps, having once been a regular, that might be a problem.
Dutifully turned up to read for the role of ‘drunk teacher with nail in foot’ – all 6 lines of it. The casting director had my CV in front of her, but – I suppose not unsurprisingly – went through the motions – and asked, ‘So – do you know about Casualty then?’ and ‘Have you watched any episodes?’ I just nodded.
Subsequently got a call on the mobile, when I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way home, to say I’d got the job! Doing it was a bit like going back to your old school. The only person who recognised me, when I went through the studio doors, was Oscar – who’d been an extra on it since day one – and greeted me with, ‘Yer! You’re dead!’ Hm. Indeed.
You have some lovely examples of your photography on your website. Do you consider it a vocation or an avocation?
Ha! Good question. As most jobbing actors will tell you, the job itself rarely keeps the wolf from the door. I suppose my philosophy has always been ‘diversify or die’, and photography – as well as something I enjoy – has always been my backstop in terms of income. I did Art ‘A’ Level back at school, and it was always a case of art or acting after I left. I couldn’t see myself drawing for the rest of my life, but I think I can spot a good picture when I see it. I suppose photography is quite an easy parallel move to make.
I started taking actors’ Spotlight photos (headshots) at drama school. I was sick of seeing actors ripped off for really poor photos and felt I might be able to make a better fist of it. Looking back, I was somewhat embryonic, but you have to start somewhere! I have to say, though, that the vast majority of actors – including myself – hate having our photos taken, so I’ve developed a sort of ‘inverse psychology’ to my approach, which seems to work!
I set up a business in 1990 and quickly became quite popular as a Spotlight photographer to the point, alas, of everyone thinking I’d given up acting. I changed my title in the hopes of deflecting that. Not sure it’s worked though.
You were recently in a play in New York. As an American who sometimes feels like an alien in my own country these days, I feel compelled to ask about a traveler’s impressions of living and working in New York (and America in general).
Yes, indeed. It was a production of a ‘lost’ J. B. Priestley play called The Roundabout, which was picked up as a part of the ‘Brits off Broadway’ season at 59E59 Theater. I absolutely loved (and love) New York! I’d say it has a very different vibe to the majority of the other places I’ve visited in the States. I always say to people who visit it for the first time – it’s the only city I know that exceeds its stereotype. I’ve been there a number of times over the years, but to actually work there for a period was very special. I found myself one evening walking across Park Avenue to the theatre, with a coffee in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other – containing a doughnut – and realised I’d ALSO become the NY stereotype! There’s an energy to the place you can’t define. It’s like a shot of adrenaline!
Of course, politically, the US (as well as the UK) are going through ‘interesting times’. I’d say though, that New York itself is in a bit of a bubble. There’s a feeling of just getting on with life and each other there, which I find rather encouraging.
America, I hope, will continue to have that ‘can do’ open attitude. I’ve never been greeted with anything but friendliness when I’ve been over. Whether it be to LA, Chicago, Florida or (about a decade ago) driving my elderly parents through Arizona. It’s a big old country, and – at its best – it’s wonderful.
Thank you for your time, Lisa.
❉ The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield: Volume 4 – The Ruler of The Universe, is available now exclusively from Big Finish Productions on CD at £23 or download at £20.