Doctor Who: Recording The DVD Commentaries

Over in the corner of former Doctor Who composer Paddy Kingsland’s recording studios in Hammersmith, another former D octor Who composer, Mark Ayres, is readying himself for an imminent “Planet Of Giants” commentary. Toby Hadoke, having just finished “The Krotons” chat-track, sidles over and informs Ayres that, “Alan Tilvern once tried selling cuckoo clocks.” “Ooh, thanks for that,” says Ayres, scribbling it down on his notepad. Tilvern, y’see, appeared in “Planet Of Giants” – so will this piece of trivia now make it into the final commentary? You’ll have to buy it to find out.

Ever since the Doctor Who DVD range’s second release – “The Robots Of Death” in 2000 – commentaries have been a vital part of its extras arsenal. As SFX arrives, Philip Madoc (sadly in the last months of his life) is just leaving, and there are three octogenarian faces sat on a sofa waiting for their turn. It turns out they’re Brian Hodgson, Clive Doig, Sonia Markham and David Tilley, who are here for the “Planet Of Giants” commentary. That story, as Toby points out, is the only one where all the guest cast are now dead. So, commentary producer John Kelly decided, it was a chance to go at it from a different angle and have a more technically-skewed chat, hence sound-nerd (he won’t mind the description) Mark Ayres being on moderating duties.

Kelly has been with the Classic Doctor Who DVD range since the early days, producing various Making Ofs and featurettes, before graduating onto masterminding the commentaries.

“I try to avoid excessive duplication with other DVD features, and am always keen to involve people who we might not have heard from before,” he tells SFX. “Working to my budget, I work out my ‘perfect scenario’, then start phoning people up and trying to work out dates and contractual agreements. This is the main bulk of the work. The biggest challenge can often be settling on a date where everyone is free.”

“The commentaries offer customers a unique viewing experience,” DVD branch boss Dan Hall tells us, while munching his way through two roast chickens (he’s on the Atkins). “It’s like having these people in the room with us, chatting along. I’ve always really liked the way producer John Kelly walks a tough line between information and informality. If the editorial were to skew too far in either direction it would become far less enjoyable.”

As well as having the right technical know-how, it’s essential Kelly knows his Doctor Who onions. At various points during the two commentaries SFX is present for today – “The Reign Of Terror” is also on the menu – Kelly has to stop to recording due to a guest misremembering something. Full-time Who spods Richard Bignell and Andrew Pixley provide copious notes beforehand while trivia-heads Ben Jolly and Simon Harries are usually there in the studio to butt in should somebody slip up.

“I keep an ear out for what I consider serious factual errors,” Kelly says. “If something like that creeps in, I will stop the recording, feed in the correct information, and we’ll do a retake. Sometimes we will wildtrack odd lines in at the end of an episode.

“Normally, you’ll find that a commentary picks up momentum as it runs along, so I try to avoid stopping the recording if at all possible. I think we have managed a few all the way through, but more often than not, there will be one or two stops per episode.”

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Back when the DVD range began, the commentaries did without moderators. Some worked, but others – “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang” springs to mind – flailed without anyone knowledgeable to shepherd the chat. Gary Russell, Clayton Hickman, Peter Purves and Andrew Cartmel have all come and gone, but Toby Hadoke seems to be the go-to man now. A walking Internet Movie Database, Hadoke comes with a frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge not only of Doctor Who , but of seemingly every actor in any story. However obscure you think you can go to test him, he’ll beat you.

“Toby was suggested to me back in early 2007,” says Kelly, obviously enamoured of his leading moderator man, “and to my delight I found he fitted my requirements perfectly. Some time later, Mark Ayres also did some work for me, and he too was excellent in the role. Moderation is a very difficult job, and I need to be able to rely on these chaps entirely. Both Toby and Mark are hard-working and extremely professional. I give great credit to both of them for any success my commentaries may garner.”

What sort of preparation does Toby have to do? “I don’t have to do any to be honest,” Hadoke smiles. “I was never asked to; just come in and steer the conversation, that’s all. However, I think the moderator’s job is to be able to answer any question the other participants may have: they have to have confidence in you, and frankly, my views are not what the listeners want. I am there to facilitate the memories of others, but to do so in a way that isn’t too dry or formal (though being too matey is a sin too). The problem is, you don’t know what people will ask and at what juncture. I tend to know the general stuff about Doctor Who and biographical details of the cast and crew; that stuff is in my head anyway. Things like what studio was used, and geographical locations, and dates, they’re the sort of things I need to scribble down and make sure I have to hand, as they do not etch themselves into my brain so easily.”

As the commentaries are – apart from the odd retake – recorded in real-time, a moderator has to have the gift of the gab when guests are either less than forthcoming or stumble on their memories. Hadoke says his most difficult commentary was for “The Time Monster”, with a cancer-stricken Barry Letts. “He was very ill,” he says, “and got dropped off at the wrong entrance. So by the time he reached us, just before we were due to start, he was very tired. It was very difficult sitting alongside him as he got frustrated with his memory, and found it difficult to find the right words to finish his sentences. I know he didn’t enjoy it like he had others (though he only took this out on himself as he was a gentleman) that we had done together (after which he had always been very kind to me), and I was really unhappy as I bid him farewell. I felt a bit sick deep down, as I suspected it was probably going to be the last time I ever saw him. I was right – he died five weeks later.”

After producing commentaries for so many years now, Kelly thinks the key to a lively commentary is variation. Since he started work on the range, it’s been increasingly the trend for a rotating cast of commentary guests, instead of the same three or four sitting it through all four or six episodes. “I like to switch my line-ups throughout the serials,” Kelly says. “I think this keeps proceedings fresh and lively and also means you can involve larger groups of participants. I also try to include names we might not have heard much from in the past, many of whom have interesting tales and unique takes on the show.

“I also think having good moderators makes a massive difference,” he continues, “particularly when we’re dealing with some of the older shows. I like the notion of thinking that the viewer/listener imagines that they are in the room with everyone else, reminiscing with old friends. I try to encourage everyone involved to have fun, be honest and open, and fair. If the contributors are enjoying themselves, I think the listener is much more likely to enjoy the experience too.”

After working on so many now, does Toby have a favourite? “I thought the re-release of ‘Carnival Of Monsters’ was great,” he says. “It just flew by and had a terrific mix of people. ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ re-release is another good one: I think Frazer and I bounce off each other quite well and I know he enjoys my company, which immediately makes proceedings more relaxed. I remember feeling good coming out of that one.”

Release dates for “Planet Of Giants” “Reign Of Terror” and “The Krotons” have yet to be finalised.

The next Doctor Who DVD due for release is Ace Adventures , featuring “Dragonfire” and “The Happiness Patrol” on 7 May.

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