Image Credit: Stewart Pringle
Image Description: Lauren Mooney and Stewart Pringle
By James Ashworth
As a group, the Oxford Doctor Who Society hasn’t done too badly when it comes to contributing to the world of Doctor Who. From articles in Doctor Who Magazine to Black Archives and the pages of Tides itself, there’s always an opportunity to get a WhoSoc point of view across. As for penning the stories themselves, former Treasurer Stewart Pringle joins Caroline Symcox in adding to the tapestry of the expanded Whoniverse for Big Finish. Alongside his fiance Lauren Mooney, he has penned the Torchwood ‘Christmas Special’, The Grey Mare.
Both Stewart and Lauren shared a fascination for the macabre, enjoying the horror genre from an early age.
“We grew up watching Hammer Horror throughout our childhood and there’s something of a pleasure in being slightly scared when you’re a kid,” Lauren explains. “That genre allows you to re-access that feeling as an adult in a safe way, but for me it’s also looking at the uncanny, something that sits so adjacent to the everyday but in an eerie way.”
Classic Doctor Who, with its penchant to lean into horror when the opportunity arose, left its mark on the pair. They cite folk horror as a particular favourite, including stories such as The Dæmons and K9 & Company. Stewart would later have the opportunity to host the script editor of the former when he came to Oxford during Stewart’s time as one of the society’s committee members.
“I was in WhoSoc for almost my entire university career while I was at Merton College, and I was briefly Treasurer,” he says. “It was great, because as part of my role I got to meet Terrance Dicks and take him to dinner. However, he ordered too much food and almost bankrupted the society, and as Treasurer this was all my fault!”
Having realised his talents did not necessarily lie in fiscal security, Stewart decided to focus on academic pursuits with a Masters degree at Cambridge. However, he says that it never quite stuck, so in 2010 he moved to London where he established the Theatre of the Damned with some friends, building on the drama he had been involved in at Oxford. Creating horror and genre productions in London and elsewhere, the group of friends also established the London Horror Festival to go deeper into the uncanny.
“The opportunity to go into more extreme areas of experience and put characters into extraordinary situations is what drama is all about,” Stewart says. “Even in naturalistic drama, putting characters into these circumstances is about revealing what truth the situations reveal about them.
“Horror and sci-fi let you put people in even more unusual situations, you get to stress test people’s souls against quite outlandish events. It’s also quite liberating, while harking back to the nostalgia of the things I’ve always loved.”
Meanwhile, Lauren graduated from an English degree and headed to London in 2012. At first, she worked in an office before becoming more involved in theatre.
“I was drawn into the creative industries through unsuitability for anything else!” she laughs. “When I moved to London, the economy was still recovering from the 2008 recession so jobs were pretty scarce. Everyone always used to say that a degree would sort your life out but at the time it wouldn’t do anything for you.
“I wanted to work in theatre but didn’t really know what that would involve so I worked in some office jobs and did a bit of freelancing around it.”
Over time, Lauren and Stewart worked their way into making a career in the industry. While Lauren works as a freelance theatre-maker, alongside her work running the Kandinsky Theatre Company, Stewart has worked at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington. Besides being the venue’s artistic director for three years, he also made some good friends.
“The bar manager of the place called me over and asked what I was into,” Stewart says. “He asked if I was into football, and I said that I wasn’t really, so then he said: ‘You’re not into Doctor Who, are you?’
“I said I [was] and he said I should talk to Tim [Foley]. We got talking and we got on really well, and I introduced him to Loz and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
While Stewart later moved on to become a dramaturg (an expert in the study of plays) and playwright at the National Theatre, he and Lauren kept in touch with Tim, who became a mainstay of Big Finish in the meantime.
“He was badgering us for years to do Big Finish when we were complaining about not getting plays on in London,” Stewart says.
Come March 2020, however, and all plays were off for the foreseeable future. While the National Theatre pivoted to providing free recordings of some of its shows for anyone to watch, Lauren’s work ground to a halt for the first time in a while.
“The theatre machine is quite intense and it keeps going, so it can be hard to stop for breath,” Lauren says. “But the pandemic happening provided a large breath across the industry, allowing us to ask if this was an industry we wanted to be in.
“For me, as a freelancer, my work dried up overnight and while I was figuring out what I wanted to do next, Tim Foley said that Big Finish were looking for a script editor, which is along similar lines to my career as a dramaturg.
“Both are about working with writers to support the development of their stories and scripts, workshopping with actors and looking over the story as a whole as well as going through it line by line. He thought I’d be a good fit for a vacancy on the Torchwood range, so once I got the job I started doing that.”
However, it’s not as easy to step from theatre into audio drama as simply arriving in the studio. In the case of Big Finish, Lauren had to work out a way to understand the processes which have sustained it for over two decades. She decided that throwing herself in at the deep end was the way to go – and she was bringing Stewart with her.
“Like theatre, the Big Finish machine is a juggernaut,” she explains. “It has been running in a certain way for a long time, so it was a lot to get my head around.
“I told James [Goss] that I would be able to serve the writers better if I knew what it was like to be on the other side of the process, as it would teach me so much about how it works.
“I started talking to Stewart about it, and we decided to pitch something together. We’ve always spoken about being the next Pip and Jane Baker, and being stuck together in lockdown now was the time to start.”
As well as promising the impetus for the Big Finish switch, lockdown would also provide some of the inspiration for the couple’s storyline.
“We’re both slightly obsessed with Christmas,” Stewart says, “and it was immediately clear we wanted it to be a festive story, as we’d had a lovely but difficult time in 2020 as we couldn’t get back to see either of our families.
“Because of that, we didn’t feel ready for Christmas to be over when it had never really started, so we decided to write a seasonal ghost story so the festive period could extend into February and March.”
As festive folk stuck without a proper Christmas, Stewart and Lauren decided to give Ianto the opposite in The Grey Mare.
“From Home Alone to A Christmas Carol, you can’t be a miser at Christmas,” Stewart says. “We were interested in the idea that Ianto has found everything at Torchwood too stressful so he just wants to get away and have a quiet Christmas.
“Inevitably, when you want a quiet Christmas it never happens, so something comes and finds him.”
Ianto finds himself menaced by the Mari Lwyd, a real life festive tradition in South Wales where a horse skull is carried on a pole during wassailing. The initial inspiration came from Stewart’s upbringing in the Northumberland village of Allendale, where at New Year villagers carry lighted tar barrels through the streets.
“It’s a really weird and fun tradition, and we’ve always wanted to do something about those kind of rituals,” Stewart says. “It’s hard to get Ianto up to Northumberland, so the Mari Lwyd felt like a good fit.”
It also had the added benefit of being untouched by Big Finish. Amongst the sprawling storylines of its many ranges, something being unused is increasingly rare.
“We thought about having a throwaway gag about Laika [a dog launched by the USSR into orbit] in another story,” Lauren says, “but we looked it up and there are so many things that have happened to her!
“There are so many stories you can’t even fit in a throwaway gag!”
“We pitched for a different range recently and were looking for a historical period to do a pseudohistorical in, but all of our favourite eras had been done,” Stewart adds. “Lauren pitched the Orson Welles broadcast with an alien invasion, but then we remembered Mark Gatiss had done that about 20 years ago.
“It’s a little easier with Torchwood though, as it’s less reliant on returning monsters and there’s less time travel involved, while there’s also much less of it to get through.”
“The continuity encourages you into specificity though, and it’s in that really interesting work lies,” Lauren concludes.
Writing The Grey Mare also tested their ability to adapt their writing to different mediums. While their theatre backgrounds wanted to keep Ianto confined to one location until the plot ended, that sensibility doesn’t come across as well on audio.
“It’s very hard to get out of that habit of being conservative with cast and locations, where on audio drama you can go to a completely different room that is never seen again,” Lauren says. “Our first draft got lots of red lines when James Goss sent it back.
“For instance, there was a stage direction in our first draft of an item falling into a bin, and he said that no one would know what that is unless it’s described.”
“James Goss’ most common note to us is that we’re not writing for the theatre anymore,” Stewart adds, “so we can keep expanding the locations as there’s no need to buy another set!”
While changing their style was something of a learning curve, it’s less than that experienced by Lauren’s grandfather, who learnt Welsh as an adult after growing up in a time when the language wasn’t taught in schools. This element of othering within Wales was something the writers were also keen to discuss in their story.
“My grandfather was quite disconnected from his culture in some ways, so we were interested in telling a story about who gets to own folk tales,” Lauren says. “Ianto is someone coming from Cardiff, he’s Welsh but coming to a part of Wales he’s not from. He doesn’t have the same inheritance of those narratives.
“It was interesting to write about as a cultural and generation clash, setting up interesting tensions between the characters.”
Now their first audio is out in the wild, Stewart and Lauren are working on furthering their Big Finish career with two more audios currently in the works, one for Torchwood and another for the ongoing adventures of River Song. In doing so, they’re hoping to cement a new aspect of their writing career, as well as their relationship.
“We’re getting married in the summer,” Stewart says, “so we’re hoping to pay for a big chunk of it with Big Finish audios we write between now and then.
“There’s a lot to do before we get married, but we’re really getting stuck into writing these audios and hoping to do more in the future.”
Tides 48 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link