"The Confessions of Dorian Gray" interview with creator Scott Handcock

Scott Handcock on creating the audio series "The Confessions of Dorian Gray", fighting for a creative vision, choosing an intimate ending over a big, epic finale and the challenge of a new project.

Foto: Scott Handcock
Scott Handcock

November 3, 2016 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Being the creator and showrunner of "The Confessions of Dorian Gray" was a first for you, wasn't it? What is the most memorable thing that you learnt on this project?

Yeah, Confessions was very much my baby, and the first time I was entrusted to produce and direct a project solo. Previously, I'd either been co-producing, or directing for other people, but this was a project I was able to own. At the time, that was both exciting and incredibly daunting in equal measure. And it was a rigorous process in a lot of ways. Because it was an original series with no established audience, everything was under scrutiny. I had to argue the case for a lot of the creative decisions - such as half-hour episodes, weekly download releases, the overall tone and listenership we were aiming for - even the casting of Alex (Alexander Vlahos), who back then was just starting to become more widely known thanks to "Merlin". I was very lucky to have the support of Big Finish in that respect. They were keen to do something different, and trusted that I wouldn't be suggesting things without a good reason behind it. And boy, you have to be good at spinning plates! If I thought I was organised before, tackling Dorian has only refined my time management skills!

Every year "Confessions" has held something fresh and new. As the storylines, performances and production evolved, what surprised you most?

That's an interesting one. In terms of production, the biggest change was from series one to series two, where we went from a rather ad-hoc studio space in Cardiff, to our familiar recording base in London - and the improvement in terms of what we could technically achieve exploded. We had so much more control, and the process became a bit slicker as a result, meaning we could tackle some more technically-demanding scenarios.

In terms of storylines… if I'm honest, the first three years were a bit of a surprise. Series one was all we ever thought we'd get to do, so it was very much self-contained. Then, when we got series two, I didn't believe we'd get a third, so we strove to give the series a definite ending, just in case. Once we got greenlit for series three, I kind of knew we were in a good place then, so we had room to be a little more experimental with the format. Again, we had the freedom and resources to break away from the narration a bit, and tackle more traditional full-cast drama, making the most of that immediacy by setting it all in the present-day. I think that probably surprised me most - how much that sense of place and time impacted upon the overall feel of the series.

It feels like we've traveled the world with Dorian but if you actually had to, which of the stories would you choose to experience yourself and which one would be the biggest horror for you?

I'm a child of the 80s, and it was the very first script that was written, so obviously I've a soft spot for The Heart That Lives Alone. But weirdly, that dynamic was slightly autobiographical, drawing upon a doomed on-off non-relationship I was enjoying at the time, so I've already lived it! Albeit without the vampiric overtones…

I can tell you, quick as a flash, that Angel of War would be my biggest horror. The First World War is very horrific in so many senses. It's a period of history that frightens me, and I find it very difficult to get my head around the mindset of war. It's why, when we have set stories or sequences there, I've been very firm about the fact that nothing supernatural can take place there. It isn't something to be sensationalised like that. If you do it, you have to take it seriously. You can have humour and comradeship, but you also have to acknowledge the horror of it. It's a difficult, shameful period of human history, and not something I think anyone would want to revisit…

There are mild spoilers for Series 5 below.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, The Confessions of Dorian Gray - Copyright: Stuart Manning
Alexander Vlahos, The Confessions of Dorian Gray
© Stuart Manning

[SPOILER] In the final series we got three stories of people attesting to Dorian's existence before we get to deal with the fact that we are pushed out of his life at an excruciating point, like his other acquaintances were over time, because we are caught up with the present. That's my interpretation, but there are many others. Were you going for an especially ambiguous final series? There must have been moments of weakness in which you wanted to give Dorian some peace?

Honestly? Writing the ending was tough. Of course I wanted to draw a proper line under things and give Dorian that moment of triumph, and hint at where he was going with his life. I even wrote a script - an entire, full-length script - that picked up from the end of The Spirits of Christmas, and featured Dorian travelling the world to track down his Portrait and tie up loose ends, culminating in a confrontation with Lucifer…

But, I threw it out and started again. To me, it felt predictable. It was exactly what people would have expected us to do, and that's the last thing I wanted. I even saw a few people online saying they thought it'd end on the cliffs in Whitby - and that's exactly what I'd written! That's how predictable the original ending was! And that was a very tough decision to make: partly because I'd already written a draft and I wanted Dorian to be the hero, but also because I'd had a grand plan at the back of my head since series three, and I'd be throwing that out the window!

In the end, I realised what was bothering me. The original script treated Dorian too much as a hero, and played to the conventions of those big, epic finales that we're all used to. Dorian versus Lucifer! You can see how it might become a little bit overwrought. It didn't feel right either for the character or the series, and so I decided we'd do something more self-contained, but that also honoured everything that came before, and the final episode became something a lot more intimate.

In terms of ambiguity, yes, that was absolutely what I was aiming for. Horror, to me, is all about ambiguity. The thrill of ghost stories is nobody - not one person - can categorically prove that they do or don't exist. Even the most rational people start to feel a sense of dread if left in an eerie room alone. Not having definite answers is frightening, because it makes us question everything we thought we knew, and doubt - by its very nature - can only unsettle us. For me, it was more important to make the listener feel something about the ending than to wrap everything up in a tidy bow and send Dorian on his way.

Plus, you know, endings in life are never easy. They aren't prepared or expected a lot of the time. Very rarely will you know someone's stepping out of your life and you'll never see them again, so the uncertainty about Dorian's fate here mirrors that. I mean, I can tell you now, we won't be revisiting him - it would compromise the ending if we did - but every listener will have formed their own opinion on what it means. And I love that. I remember being sent some thoughts from a fan about Toby and Dorian's relationship, back when The Heart That Lives Alone first came out, and it was nothing I'd ever intended. But if people want to believe something is a certain way, and it's flexible enough to allow for that interpretation, why not run with it? Personally, I don't like the idea that the Dorian who pops up in Bernice Summerfield is the Confessions Dorian, but I know a lot of people do. At the end of the day, if people are engaging at that kind of level, I can only be proud. Anything is possible, and the ending hopefully celebrates that…

You have a new Big Finish project with Alexander Vlahos in the works of which Alex said it's going to be a challenge. Can you say in what way?

I can't really say a lot about it at the moment, though we take it into studio very soon. It's a challenge, I suppose, in terms of the scale of it. It's the longest single production we've worked on together - in terms of a single script. It's a classic text, so the challenge comes from tackling people's preconceptions, and finding a way to put a distinctive spin on it all, whilst at the same time maintaining due reverence for the original material. We've a brilliant cast assembled though - many of whom have worked with Alex and me on Confessions - so it should be something very special for all concerned!

Since myFanbase is an online magazine mostly about TV series, we would love to know what your favorite shows are?

I love "American Horror Story", absolutely! I've not quite caught up on series six as I've been flitting about all over the place, but it's stacked up, ready and waiting for a binge when I find the time. I just love the size of it - not just in terms of the production values, but also the ideas, and the characters. Everything's larger than life, but it's absolutely brilliant and mesmerising. And for what it's worth (it seems to be controversial), "Freakshow's" my favourite series.

I also absolutely adore "Hannibal". It's simply incredible. Superlative in every single aspect. The writing, the visuals, the performances, the production: every single element is first-class and spectacularly judged. It's a series I cherish and cannot put down, and I hope beyond hope that it one day comes back to us!

Thank you so much for making time for us, Scott, these are amazing insights!

Thanks for your brilliant questions and getting me involved.

Find "The Confessions of Dorian Gray" at Big Finish

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