John Ainsworth

As a member of the fan group Audio Visuals in the mid-Eighties, John Ainsworth was one of the pioneers of
Doctor Who on audio. Since then he has directed his own stage play, worked as a writer and editor in magazine publishing and is the editor of the UK Sci-Fi Channel website. For Big Finish Productions he produced the popular Doctor Who Unbound mini-series and is producer and often director of the 2000 AD audio dramas. Darren Rea caught up with him as the latest Judge Dredd audio drama, Pre-emptive Revenge, was due to be released...

Darren Rea: How did you originally get involved in this industry?

John Ainsworth: Well, outside of Radio 4, audio drama is such a narrow field that I'd hardly describe it as an 'industry'.

Back in the Eighties I was part of a Doctor Who fan group known as Audio Visuals. Unlike most fan groups then, instead of publishing a fanzine we produced our own Doctor Who audio plays which we released on cassette. The whole thing was run by Bill Baggs who is just incredible when it comes to getting things done in that, unlike most of us, he doesn't waste any time and he really does get it done! Nick Briggs played the Doctor and also did a lot of the writing, directing and post-production. Gary Russell took over as Producer from Bill Baggs for the final season of plays.

John Ainsworth during a recording session

Audio Visuals released over twenty full-length Doctor Who audio plays over a period of about five years. By the end the quality was extremely high in all respects - acting, writing and post-production. So, Audio Visuals was my first introduction to audio drama - all for love and no money. Little did I know that I would be directing 'real' Doctor Who years later - and getting paid for it!

DR: How did you get introduced to the Big Finish Audios?

JA: My introduction to Big Finish was really an extension of the success of the Audio Visuals Doctor Who plays. We'd got really good at it and really wanted to move in to doing it professionally. However, at the time, we didn't really have the business know-how. So, a few years went by in which time the technology changed and improved and it became more viable to create broadcast quality audio without spending a fortune.

Jason Haigh-Ellery came along, who is very much a business man and knew how it all worked. He was also a fan of the Audio Visuals Doctor Who plays (and even acted in one) so he knew what Gary, Nick and I were all capable of. So, Jason's company, Big Finish employed Gary and Nick to produced the Professor Bernice Summerfield audio dramas which were a spin-off from the Virgin Books series of adventures that were spun-off themselves from their Doctor Who range of novels.

Gary and Nick were keen for me to be involved but it became clear early on that Gary and I had a difference of opinion on various aspects of the production and I could see that this would only lead to a fractious relationship. So, I decided that I'd rather remain on good terms with Gary and bowed of the project after only a couple of initial meetings. Happily Gary and I remain good friend to this day!

Some time later, after Big Finish had acquired the licence to produce Doctor Who and had released quite a few of the plays, Gary and Jason asked me to be editor of the Big Finish website as the previous editor was stepping down. I already had some experience of web editing and design (being editor of the UK Sci·Fi Channel's website).

Then, in 2000, I produced and directed my first stage play, Deceptions, which starred Jacqueline Pearce of Blake's 7 fame. Jason, Gary and Nick came to see the play and were impressed with it. As a result I was offered a Bernice Summerfield play - The Plague Herds of Excelis to direct. That in turn lead to more directing and producing for Big Finish, including the 2000 AD audio series.

DR: Where you originally a fan of 2000 AD? Did you know a lot about MegaCity One and Dredd? Or has this series been a learning curve for you?

JA: I was a casual fan of 2000 AD and Judge Dredd. I'd bought it off an on over the years. So, I had a reasonable feel for it but didn't know the details. With hindsight, I think this was a good thing as knowing the subject matter on an intimate level might have limited my ambition with the audio series.

DR: Had you heard the Dirk Maggs Dredd audio series produced for the BBC? And knowing how critically acclaimed it was did that worry you that your work would constantly be compared to those audios?

Toby Longworth and Caroline Burns Cooke during the recording of Judge Dredd: War Crimes

JA: I was certainly aware of the Dirk Maggs Dredd audios but I hadn't heard them (and still haven't I'm afraid). I'm sure they are excellent as I like all of Dirk Maggs' productions. To be honest, I had no knowledge of how the Dirk Maggs' versions were regarded by Dredd enthusiasts and it never really entered my head that our productions might be compared to them. We just did what we thought was right and set out to produced the best plays that we could and made every effort to capture the essence of the comic strips.

DR: How much artist licence do you have with the series? Do you have to get much approval from Rebellion before you use certain characters and plot lines etc?

JA: Every story idea and script has to be approved by Alan Barnes at Rebellion. Having said that, Alan is very open to ideas and many of the story concepts, particularly the later ones, have been developed in conjunction with him. There are a few no-go areas (such as using Psi-Judge Anderson and Mega-City Two) but, for the most part, we have a fairly free hand in what we can do.

DR: There is a strong mix of comedy and drama in these productions. Do you think that is an integral part of its success - the fact that the reader never knows what to expect?

JA: I think any on-going series needs to have a certain amount of variety in its storytelling to keep it fresh. I've certainly made a conscious effort to have a mix of light-hearted and more serious stories and I think it's great that Judge Dredd is flexible enough to accommodate extremes of both. Both types (from I Love Judge Dredd to War Crimes) seem to have been well received, so I think we've got the mix more-or-less right.

DR: If an audio production was to be made of your life, who would play you and why?

JA: Goodness, what a question! I don't know... Brad Pitt or Rob Lowe - we're about the same age!!

DR: What's the one piece of work that you've done throughout your career that you are most proud of? And what's the project that you cringe every time you think about?

JA: I suppose the stage play I directed, Deceptions, is a highlight of my 'career' to date. In all respects I don't think it could have been better. I think it was a job well done.

In terms of audio though, it's difficult to choose. Audio production is such a team effort that I don't always feel comfortable taking the credit, even when I'm the director. The Judge Dredd play War Crimes is a good example of that. Of course, I'm very happy with the work that I and the actors did but it's Simon Robinson - the sound-editor and musician - who I think deserves the real praise for making it a great production.

I think the only productions that I've been involved in that make me cringe are some of the early Audio Visuals Doctor Who plays that I acted in. If it was up to me I would burn every copy of 'Shadow World' and erase it from history.

DR: If you weren't in this industry what would you be doing?

JA: I think I would like to be a Postman.

DR: What are you working on at the moment?

JA: At the moment I'm giving feedback on the post-production of the Judge Dredd audios Pre-emptive Revenge and Grud is Dead. I'm also having early talks about developing a second series of Sarah Jane Smith, a Doctor Who spin-off. On top of all that I'm preparing to cast and record the first of a new series of audio dramas called Space: 1889 which are being produced and released by my own production company, Noise Monster Productions Ltd.

DR: Thank you for your time.

The cast of Strontium Dog: Down to Earth with Simon Pegg (centre)

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