JEKYLL AND HYDE – The Big Finish Interview - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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JEKYLL AND HYDE – The Big Finish Interview

Ahead of the launch of the latest horror classic from Big Finish, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Tony caught up with Nicholas Briggs, who adapted the story for audio, and John Heffernan, who played both halves of the leading role, to ask them just what they thought they were upto.

WarpedFactor: John, what makes you look at a role like Jekyll and Hyde and think “Oh! That’s for me! This raging, violent psychopath hiding behind the façade of a kindly city doctor has me written all over it!”?

John Hefferman: Well, it’s an actor’s dream! You want complexity and extremes and you’re always looking for something that’s going to challenge you. And there’s probably nothing more challenging than two people at either ends of the spectrum, and trying to find the meeting point between them.

In the most essential sense, it’s a battle between good and evil going on inside his head the entire time. Nick and I were talking about what you’re able to do in an audio drama with this material, that you maybe would struggle to do as successfully on stage or on film. It allowed us to go to some quite fun places, and Nick was great at encouraging me to go further and embrace the Dark Side.

WF: You surprise us! That’s interesting, because frequently when people think of Jekyll and Hyde, they think of that grand theatrical transformation between the one and the other, with the frothing beaker of evil goo, so it’s interesting to hear how that’s achieved on audio.

JH: The wonderful thing about audio is that it can work on your imagination, so it’s all happening in the listener’s head, and that can make it incredibly effective. It’s a bit like the shark in Jaws – you don’t want to see it, necessarily, and it’s a bit of a disappointment when it turns up! And so, to be able to work on the listener’s imagination is a very potent thing, I think.

WF: There are degrees to which Jekyll and Hyde is an obvious hit for the Big Finish Classics range (following the likes of Frankenstein, three bites of Dracula, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, The Phantom of the Opera, and of course a whole range of Dorian Gray stories). But Nick, what made you jump on this story and say “Oh, I know what we can do with that!”

Nicholas Briggs: It was a very practical thing – I was actually asked to adapt it as a stage play to start with, at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham in 2016, and I wasn’t familiar with the novella, except in the way that we all are, in that we’ve all heard of it. I immediately read it, and then I listened to the audiobook with Ian Holm, who reads it so perfectly that anything I was having a moment of stupidity about or not quite following, just hearing Ian Holm read it, I was like “Oh, THAT’s what that means! Now I get it!” So he was my guide, really.

And what fascinated me was that it is not the story that everybody thinks it is, and I really wanted to tell it more how it was in the novella, to just give it a chance, because hardly anyone ever tells it that way. Hardly anyone ever makes it Gabriel Utterson’s story – he’s the lawyer whose friend is Dr Jekyll, and he hears about the Mr Hyde thing and wonders what on earth is going on, and why is his lovely friend Jekyll associating with this abominable person. And because we know what the reveal is, the voyage of discovery through Utterson (Barnaby Kay), who DOESN’T know, is the emotional centre of the story, and in the book, it’d from his point of view and you hear all his inner thoughts.

I brought in the character of Inspector Newcomen (Robert Portal), who is in the book, but who only has one scene. I have him interrogating and urging Utterson on, and that’s WHY we get to hear all of Utterson’s fears, and how he starts to find out about all this, so it’s an emotional and disturbing journey, the end of which Utterson dare not even think about.

That’s why it becomes a powerful story. Because as I always maintain, it doesn’t matter if you know the ending of something, I think what we really love about stories is the journey – which is why you can watch your favourite film over and over again and think “Oh God! I know what happens, but I don’t care!” It doesn’t matter, because it’s the telling that counts.

WF: With the exception of the procedural introduction with Newcomen, this is a much more down the line telling of the story you get in the novella than a lot of other versions. Is there more pressure when you do it that way? Especially because everybody thinks they know what the story is, and it isn’t actually what they think it is?

NB: That’s what excited me about it, I wanted to surprise people. I wanted them to start listening to it and think “Hold on, where’s the laboratory?! Where’s the bubbling potions?! So I wasn’t really thinking about that pressure. I’ve added a lot in post-production, a lot more background and settings, and a sort of lingering dripping of blood, but yeah, I wanted to surprise people.

WF: So no “Oh! I’m adapting a timeless classic!” nerves, then?

NB: Well yeah, but Ian Holm really helped me, because I always feel pretty stupid when I read older novels, because I have a bit of a phobia of not being quite clever enough to understand them, but yeah, that’s my advice to everyone.

WF: When in doubt, follow Bilbo?

NB: I did the same thing when I adapted War of the Worlds - I listened to a really good audiobook of it as well, and you appreciate a story in a different way when you hear it, which speaks to this drama as well. You notice things that you didn’t notice when you read it.

JH: And seeing the story through Utterson’s eyes is so important, I think, because it really roots you and grounds you in that reality, and he becomes the listener’s eyes and ears. I had an experience playing Jonathan Harker in Dracula, a TV version, and he performs a similar function. If you focus too much on Jekyll, it warps the whole story, whereas if you see it through someone like Utterson, it becomes even more abominable because you’re seeing this terrible thing happen to their friend, and it becomes much more real.
WF: Yep, it’s the distance from absolute horror, but it becomes altogether more grim when seen through ordinary eyes. It’s the Companion-role, really, isn’t it?

JH: Absolutely.

NB: And one of the traditional ways of presenting it is to show Jekyll first and then proceed to the monster, but we actually show Hyde first, and then find out what a nice, harmless fellow Jekyll appears to be, so the reveal is almost the shock of the niceness.

WF: Yes – which again, follows the line of the book more. We hear of Hyde’s behaviour first there, and it’s made to be horrifying by its callousness. Jekyll comes in afterward, and we’re not initially sure what connects the two. Here’s the thing: we’re in 2022. We’re a Big Finish audience, we’re very aware of the idea of a baseline personality that can be split any number of ways – that’s more or less the trick that keeps Doctor Who fresh, and John of course, having played The Nine (a Time Lord with all his previous incarnations perpetually present in his mind), has particular experience of that. Is the idea of a SINGLE split, a polar dichotomy between good and evil, still as scary as it would have been to the original audience, who firmly believed in those opposing forces?

NB: Oh, I think there’s no limit to how scary human beings are. I mean, we’ve seen in recent years how we can be surprised by people behaving in more and more appalling ways – y’know, we’ve got a war raging in Europe, we’ve got populist leaders who invoke the very worst, basest feelings in people, which are quite enticing, because giving people the permission to just be horrible is a very intoxicating thing, but ultimately, people have to think about how that’s going to affect them, because y’know, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

So I think it IS scary, and we should always BE scared of the bad things that human beings are capable of. And here I did amplify it by having it be that haunting thing – even before they’ve met him, people almost get physically ill at the mention of Hyde. Much like our recent Prime Minister…

When I did it on stage, when the maid talks about Hyde, she’s so scared, she falls off her chair and hides under it, and they have to physically pull her away from it. And likewise, when Mrs Poole sees him, her legs go out from under her, just at the sheer recognition of this distillation of the worst in human nature. And even though we weren’t able to do those things physically for this, I spoke to Claire Corbett, who plays all the women in this version, and that sense of being absolutely felled by the observation of Hyde, by his presence, is there in her performance. And it’s also there with Lanyon (Nicholas Asbury) – once he sees the transformation, the shock of it kills him!

Jekyll and Hyde from Big Finish, is an extraordinary, harrowing, absorbing, pulse-pounding take on the classic horror of distilled good and evil. It has all the power of the original novella and some spectacular audio punch, without ever succumbing to the temptation for over-theatricality of some of the versions you know. John Heffernan’s performance is extraordinary and harrowing, and the sustained audio atmosphere of oppression (the Hyde Factor) will tighten your chest without you realising it.

You’re going to want to check this one out – but for maximum effect, maybe wait a little before listening. Halloween’s only a couple of months away, and this is a pin-point perfect reminder that the worst things in the world are actually inside us, waiting, jusssst waiting, for permission to come out.

Jekyll and Hyde is available to purchase from the Big Finish website.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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