EXCLUSIVE Interview: Back to Class with Blair Mowat!

    It’s all a go-go at Big Finish for 2023, the Whoniverse’s 60th anniversary year… and one of those highlights kicking off the celebrations is this month’s return for Class. Out today – Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince takes us back into that corner of the Whoniverse nearly three years since the last audio. (And over six years since the original TV show!)

    It takes us back into the events of the series, to deal with the diary of Charlie Smith. What lies in store for us all? Well, we’re sure to find out, but before that, we thought we’d have a chat with composer-producer-writer of the story, Blair Mowat. No stranger to all things Class, having been there since the TV show beginnings; he talks to us about those last two volumes of the audio series, composing for Sir Michael Palin, the surprising origins behind the production of this tale, and what the chances are for audio soundtracks…

    Blair Mowat interview

    Class composer Blair Mowat, pictured in studio at a mixing desk.
    Blair Mowat – Composer Extraordinaire.

    Back To The Past

    Pleasure to speak with you once again, Blair. Just to keep the readers in the loop, the last you and I spoke about Class was about Volume Three of the Big Finish range, which came out in April of 2020 but was being worked on for many months prior*. So – to start, let’s quickly redraw a bit of that ground and ask: what was it like working on Volume Three? Because two of those stories (Catfish and Sweet Nothings) were a lot more single-character centric than past audio stories had been. Did that mean a lot of consideration along the lines of ‘well, if this is mostly a Miss Quill story, then I need to think of quite a few ways to use her motif to fill in the “gap” of not having as many character motifs to play with’?

    Absolutely, spinning out endless variations of a theme is one of my favourite things, so that’s always a joy.

    [*Assistant Ed. Note: Jamie has interviewed Blair multiple times over the past five years, for projects related to the production of Class.]

    Moving onto Volume Four, it opens with Mock – a story that does the thing that I think a lot of fans had been waiting for – brings all of the gang together again for the first scene in the exam hall. Was the choice to not put music under it one of yours or did that come for director-producer Scott Handcock?

    Usually due to budget and schedule, I’m given pretty free reign on what to do with the music but Scott and I will usually have a chat about everything before I dive in. He may very well have mentioned that that story only needed a light touch.

    Of course, that story also opens with effectively a monologue, with music under it to convey part of the emotion of Quill’s past. And then that comes in again at other parts throughout the story? How do you approach scoring something like that, as opposed to the typical ‘action’ of an audio play script?

    I think it’s about making sure that the emotions of the scene land and that we’re evoking the right tone and guiding the story in the right way. With audio there’s no visual ‘hit points’ so it’s a bit quicker with one less element to worry about!

    The Class Halloween Special

    And how then do you approach the spinoff’s first seasonal special, in having to handle a Halloween story? Whilst we’re there, how did you execute that little spooky transitional version of the ‘Team Class’ theme? Do you have a theremin hidden somewhere in that studio of yours or is there some digital craftiness at play?

    I actually have a digital theremin made by Moog which is great fun to pay. Though that was so long ago now I can’t actually remember if it was played live or using a software synth! Seasonal episodes are always fun and Halloween was no exception – I’m glad we managed to honour that musically in some way.

    Okay, it’s a question to be asked… the Halloween DJ’s music. Is there an existing motif hidden inside that, or was that something you came up with completely original for the story, to be kept distinct from the usual music pieces as it’s actually playing within the narrative?

    If I remember correctly I think that was an unused demo of something from a previous project that I repurposed! We can’t license commercial music on our budget*, so having things like that in your arsenal is very useful for building a realistic living world.

    [*A. Ed. Note: This is also why the TV show’s opening theme – a cut-down version of Alex Clare’s ‘Up All Night‘ – has not been present on the audio releases.]

    Which brings me to asking: the cameos as the Halloween DJ and the autopilot voice… well, the latter is in your own story (which we’ll get to in a moment) but the former – was that always planned by Lizzie for you or did that just come about as a thought through the recording session?

    I think Scott and I discussed me swinging by so thought we might as well get me to do a few lines for fun. Lizzie certainly didn’t write me into the script as a cameo, but it was a fun link having the DJ be the voice of the composer!

    The Class Rhodian Return

    A recording session that you weren’t just at for composing inspiration… as you found yourself with the exciting prospect of a Big Finish writing debut – Queen of Rhodia.* At what stage did the conversation of writing a Class audio come up with Scott, and had it been a long time since you’d last had to write a script?

    Yes it was probably 2008 since I’d written a script, for a short film at university, but I’d become more and more interested in storytelling over the many years of writing music for narrative. Class was the perfect opportunity for me to start scriptwriting again – as I knew the characters inside out, having spent so much time with them. I think I approached Scott and pitched him two ideas and Queen of Rhodia was the one which we decided to go for.

    [*A. Ed. Note: Blair would also write an accompanying unofficial prelude to Queen of Rhodia as a prose short story for the charity anthology book: Time Scope. That’s a tale for another day, though…]

    Being something you yourself wrote – was it easier to think of how to approach the compositions for Queen of Rhodia? Like the opening rendition of the ‘Rhodia’ theme that acts as a sort-of music prelude…

    It was useful knowing what music is capable of when writing the script but it was almost harder in some ways when coming to compose for that story as there was pressure on myself to go the extra mile – a musical overture made sense to me in setting the scene of this story being a bit ‘different’ and bringing to mind the musical world of Rhodia. I have to make a lot of sacrifices when scoring audio in comparison to TV because less budget means less time spent on the music (and less resources like live musicians) so it’s even more painful to cut corners when it’s something you’ve written yourself.

    Cover Art for Class: Volume Four [Cover art by Tom Webster]

    Rhodia Writing

    Re-imagining the other five main characters as Quill goes through Rhodia… how did you come to figure out where to place them within that narrative? And come to that, putting Quill in a position where she is handling a situation from what seems to be the Rhodian side of the conflict?

    A lot of it came naturally as I was writing it – it was sort of inspired by the Star Trek Mirror Universe approach where things are opposite or inverted. Or Doctor Who fans would maybe appreciate an Inferno reference more! Thematically though, I think the useful thing about switching Charlie and Quill around is illiciting the idea that often these conflicts are the result of decade or century long feuds where each side is born into a conflict about something which should be solvable but both sides are very emotional about the disagreement and can’t agree on a solution.

    Each side has their version of the ‘facts’ which is likely distorted through their upbringing, their media or the company they keep. I like to think that maybe Quill came out of her coma with a subconscious realisation that things may not have been quite as black and white as she thought. Though as far as I’m concerned, the Rhodians have always come across as the less reasonable of the two sides, with a sense of entitlement that doesn’t sit very well with me.

    That metaphysical twist to the story… it kinda implies that there could be near-infinite variations of manifestations of the Class story, doesn’t it? That though Quill’s subconscious goes to this ‘metaphor’-verse… it could happen again in another wild way? (Do I get to pretend that the autopilot voice is that Halloween DJ re-imagined?)

    For me, in my mind, it only happened once and was the result of just having come out of the Metaphysical Engine. I do believe, however, that that universe now exists, it wasn’t just in her mind. It’s a new multiverse and there could easily be a whole Big Finish spin-off that could exist with Corporal Blood and buff Charlie rebuilding the Rhodian Empire. I shouldn’t say that too loudly though or Big Finish might actually commission it!

    ‘Swole Charlie Smith’. …It’s an in-joke about Greg going off and getting buff for ‘Hunters‘*, isn’t it? (which by funny coincidence, is coming back this month too as Class does! Funny how life works out.)

    Yes Queen of Rhodia is quite ‘meta’ in places and that was one line I just couldn’t resist. I was thinking about what would happen if this was an actual TV story being made in 2020 and the reality is Greg was ‘ripped’ so you’d have to find a way to explain that. In the TV version we definitely put him in a torn t-shirt and got out the baby oil to make those muscles shine. He would have loved it – as, I imagine, would a portion of the fans…!

    [*A. Ed. Note: ‘Hunters‘ is an Amazon show that Greg Austin has since gone on to perform in since filming Class, playing the secondary – and very buff – antagonist, Travis Leich.]

    Talking Torchwood Times

    After Class Volume Four, you were working on Tropical Beach Sounds… in the Torchwood range, I believe. What’s it like having to think about composing music for a performance by Sir Michael Palin? In-fact, what was your reaction to that casting news during production?

    He’s a national treasure isn’t he, Michael Palin? I grew up watching Monty Python as a kid on VHS so to be able to say you’ve worked on a project with the man himself is a true honour. That story is wonderful and I’m a huge fan of Tim Foley’s writing. He’s like a modern-day Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter – he’s got just the right amount of absurdist influence whilst keeping you firmly interested in the story. It was a while ago, so I can’t remember exactly how I approached the music but I remember having fun and honouring the title with some tropical influence!

    You’ve got to remember I’ve done well over 100 Torchwood stories now so I’m starting to forget things about how I approached each one! We’re probably in the twilight years of my Torchwood scores, but then I keep thinking that, and James Goss keeps coming up with brilliant stories. When he goes, I probably go though. I think people sort of take it for granted that range will continue indefinitely, but there’s no guarantee that’s the case! So I’d encourage people to enjoy them (and support them) whilst you can!

    There’s a lot we could touch upon in the Torchwood range, but I’d like to focus in on the Soho boxsets and ask how that time-period influences what you do musically. Because, of course, different instrumentation will evoke that setting than what you’d necessarily use for ’21st century everything changes’ Torchwood?

    Vintage time periods are fun but they’re a lot of work and it’s a challenge on our budget and schedule. With Torchwood Soho my approach was just make it a bit ‘jazzy’ as that suits Norton Folgate’s character – so there’s some saxophones etc in there which you’d never find in the other Torchwood stories. Torchwood Double Parts 1 and 2 were a lot of fun, being set in the 70s. I’d encourage fans to seek those out as if you’re a fan of the Jon Pertwee era and Terror of the Autons*, then you’ll enjoy the music approach in those! Guy Adams scripts for that, and Louise Jameson’s performance, are also just things that need to be heard.

    [*A. Ed. Note: Ardent Terror of the Autons fans might also want to revisit the second episode of Class (The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo) for a little Terror-style musical nod, too. See if you can spot it…]

    What have the challenges been of working on Big Finish audios through lockdown?

    For me it hasn’t been very different at all – I work remotely most of the time anyway! The biggest challenge has been recording the actors, as I know there was a lot of remote recording happening in 2020 to keep things going. However, they did an amazing job as I didn’t notice a drop in quality.

    The Present… And The Future!

    The Cover Art for Class: Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince. Spot the easter-eggs for each TV episode… [Cover art by Sean Longmore]

    And, of course, moving right up to present, we come to Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince. I think the big question people will want me to ask right now is… how long has this been on the cards? Releasing now as part of this 60th anniversary Whoniverse year, recording in August of last year… but presumably it’s been outlined and developed as a script for quite some time beforehand? What’s the story there?

    I had actually commissioned another writer to do something entirely different for the five-year anniversary but in the end they dropped out and decided they didn’t have the bandwidth to give it the time it needed. When that project didn’t work out, we were left without anything for the five-year anniversary, which I thought was a shame.* I didn’t want to end up in that situation again so decided this time I would write something else myself.

    The problem is I’m very busy writing music for film and television! So, carving out the time to write a script is hard. I only finished it in June 2022 and we recorded in August. By September 1st we’d completed the whole edit and score, as I had to go score Russell T Davies’s latest drama ‘Nolly’. and Scott had to get back to his script-editing duties on Doctor Who.* Despite it all happening quite fast, I’m really proud of what we made, and I’m so glad we managed to catch Scott in-between his Doctor Who duties, as he’s been a big part of the journey of Class on audio.

    [*A. Ed. Note: This rather surprising revelation does, however mean that technically, Class has had some form of production prospects every year since 2016. A eight-year streak! (The TV show in 2016, the narrated-reading versions of the tie-in novels in 2017, Vols. 1 & 2 in 2018, the recording of Vols. 3 & 4 in 2019 and their release in 2020, this never-completed commission in 2021, Secret Diary‘s recording in 2022 and its release today in 2023.)]

    [**A. Ed. Note: Indeed, as DWM 584 indicates: director of this upcoming audio, Scott Handcock, had his first “proper script meeting” for Series 14 of Doctor Who on August 31st 2022. Just over a week after Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince had recorded on August 23rd!]

    Finally, and I think you can expect this would be asked again and again… but – when ever will there be a The Music of Torchwood: the Audio Adventures or Class: The Audio OST? People seem to want them for the shelf… and Class’ TV OST getting a release was partly down to the fan desire for it… so it’s a strong topic for those passionate about it.

    I can’t see a Class Audio OST for Volumes 1-4 ever happening. I just don’t think it would be a satisfying release. There are loose plans, however, to do a Torchwood soundtrack encompassing all of the Torchwood audios. There’s a few reasons that isn’t happening quickly but one is that, in many instances, it needs remixed or re-recorded as it’s simply not up to commercial release. The music is made very quickly and on a shoestring budget so if we do it then we’ll give the tracks that end up on the album the love that they deserve. Sadly, there are only so many hours in a day and there’s only one of me! But yes, hopefully one day it will materialise, or dematerialise – Vworp Vworp!

    Class: Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince is out now from Big Finish. It costs £8.99 as a digital download or £10.99 for CD/Download combo. CDs are a limited run of 1000.

    With many thanks to Blair Mowat for giving his time for this interview.

    If you’d like to take a trip further back in time in terms of Coal Hill history though, Jamie has also previously interviewed Samuel Anderson… (who played teacher Danny Pink in Series 8)

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     – Jemma Redgrave’s Return For Doctor Who Series 14

    Jamie H. Cowan
    Jamie H. Cowan
    A wildly varied sci-fi fan. When not dragging people down the Time Vortex with his Doctor Who theories, Jamie is often working his way through 'The Flash' comics (he insists they can be sci-fi!) or trying not to dream of the return of cult sci-fi shows.

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