Image Credit: Oxford Doctor Who Society (All Rights Reserved)
Image Description: WhoSoc with Russell after the talk
James Ashworth and many others were there to meet him
On Thursday 23 May 2019, many minds were preoccupied by European Union elections taking place that day in the United Kingdom. The Oxford Doctor Who Society includes several politically-engaged people of many colours, but many of us had the distraction of the return of Russell T Davies to Worcester College, where he read English between 1981 and 1984. Russell was to be interviewed on stage in the last of the series of Conversations which Sir Jonathan Bate has run during his tenure as provost of the college. The series is aimed at Worcester College members, but on this occasion the provost had kindly invited the society along.
The event began, as triumphant ones often do, with technology failing to cooperate. Russell’s manic energy shone through from the off as the provost attempted to get computer and projector working, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. Before the main event began, there was a compilation of some highlights from Russell’s work. Jonathan’s children had recommended the inclusion of the Tenth Doctor’s pre-irradiation monologue in The End of Time Part Two. This was followed (somewhat abruptly) by trailers for A Very English Scandal and Years and Years.
From Swansea to Oxford
Jonathan Bate’s discussion with Russell was broadly chronological. Russell went to Olchfa Comprehensive School in Swansea, where he was identified as a potential Oxbridge candidate by the then-deputy head, Iris Williams. With the good track record they’d established by that point, Russell ended up at interviews, and then gained a place at Worcester College, without “any great thought.” During his first year, Peter Davison’s first series aired, and he recalled the tribulations of trying to watch. There being only one TV in college at the time, and no streaming to speak of, there was only one opportunity to see these episodes live; a strange thought in our multi-screen age. He recalls this was especially common when the ‘rugby lads’ wanted to watch sport, and so many episodes were lost to time. Fortunately for Russell, his mother was able to record them back in Swansea, as he had convinced his mother of the merits of the VCR, rare in households at the time.
Russell also recalls enjoying his student pastimes, such as his cartoons for Cherwell (explored in ‘The Adventures of Jessica Chrome’ in Tides 36 and ‘Rusling the Isis’ in Tides 37), or playing Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in front of the play’s author Tom Stoppard and his then wife Miriam (a higher profile celebrity at the time) at the Oxford Playhouse. He didn’t mention his degree very much as it wasn’t relevant to where he is now. While many feel their university years to be their formative period, Russell was to instead find himself later, in the world of the media.
English degree in hand, what was a young, talented Oxford graduate to do but stroll into the BBC and immediately be offered a cushy job? That was Russell’s plan, but the reality was much more tortuous. He applied twice for the BBC trainee scheme, and was turned down both times without the hint of an interview. Characteristically, he wrote a complaint to the recruiters, and managed to get a meeting with a BBC official, who advised him on his reapplication. With renewed passion, he applied again… and it was still a no. While he admits that the trainee scheme was aimed more at those with news in mind, it still led to him changing tack, and working for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. He did their publicity, and at £50 a day, young Russell thought he was living the high life. However, the spectre of TV still lurked in the background, and so when an actor in the theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream mentioned they had a contact, he ended up swinging a job in Why Don’t You…? (1973-1995), the long running children’s TV series. Having got in the BBC through the back door, Russell began to work his way up the ranks. It may not have been the welcome he would’ve wanted, but now he was in the door, he wasn’t leaving any time soon. As he puts it, getting into TV was like “coming home,” and so he began moving in his furniture.
After a variety of roles on Why Don’t You…?, including a foray into professional screenwriting and producing, with even a brief attempt at presenting on Play School, Russell’s career began in earnest, writing series such as Dark Season (1991) and Century Falls (1993) for Children’s BBC. He then moved away from the formative embrace of the BBC to join Granada in Manchester. Jonathan Bate took this opportunity to focus on Russell’s involvement in Springhill (Granada for ITV 1996-97), initially suggesting he had created it. Russell corrected him, though acknowledged that he put a lot of input into the show. The show’s tone was brought up, as though it began as a soap opera, the show became more supernatural with time. While he acknowledges that some don’t like the tonal jumps in his work, he retorts that life is never simple—you can be “going about life, then a plane lands on you.” He sees life as being without genre, a melting pot of themes, and so tonal jumps simply reflect the inconsistency of how he sees the world.
This formative experience helped in one of his next projects, The Grand (1997-98). He recalled enjoying it at first but, as time passed, he realised that there was something that wasn’t quite right. Indeed, he says that by the time series two rolled around, he was bored with the project, and knew that there was unlikely to be a third series. As such, he threw everything at it, telling a range of stories that, as in Springhill, were removed from the original premise. He was particularly proud of his work on an episode based around the bartender, Clive, in which it was revealed he was gay. Russell found it a very personal writing process, and, as the majority of the cast were put to one side to allow for this exploration of a minor character, he had to fight bosses —not literally, he stressed, as he’s not a fan of violence—to make it happen, refusing to redraft the script until there was no time left, forcing it to be put into production.
His willingness to push the boat out and focus on people underserved by TV was also crucial to Queer as Folk (1999-2000), commissioned by Channel 4 when they were on the lookout for new, radical drama. Russell noted how there was a lack of meaningful gay roles at the time, with shows focusing on gay characters either as the stereotypical ‘gay best friend’ or taking a more political angle. Again, he wrote from what he knew, with the Manchester setting arising from his own experiences. It allowed him a better insight into the characters’ daily lives, and show to the world that at the end of the day, we’re all human. While he notes this has improved, Russell is still waiting for greater gay representation in the media, where being gay can be a standard character trait rather than a plot beat. Following on from Queer as Folk, the ideas that would become Cucumber were already forming. He was planning to make this soon after, but a certain something called Doctor Who got in the way. With hindsight, he thinks that the age gap allowed him to tell a different story than otherwise, providing a new way to look at the lives of older characters.
Call from the Doctor
So what of that roadblock in the life of Russell, Doctor Who? After he worked references to Pyramids of Mars into Queer as Folk, BBC Television drama commissioner Jane Tranter identified him as a possible candidate to bring Doctor Who back. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, with Nicola Shindler, producer and friend, having introduced Russell to Jane at a showbiz party that Russell had been thinking of avoiding. After this chance encounter, various balls started rolling, and eventually he was offered the opportunity to regenerate Doctor Who. He was firm in the belief that had his revival flopped, he would have killed the property forever. Meanwhile, he also had doubts over what Doctor Who would do to his career, having had to cancel many offers of work from other people, of which several told him that bringing back Doctor Who wasn’t a good idea. It also felt something of a step backwards, a freelancer returning in house to the BBC, a “dinosaur with red tape.” Fortunately, when all the departments are working together, it’s the “most powerful broadcaster in the world,” and this clout helped ensure that Doctor Who was back—bigger than ever.
The provost dug further into the early production of the show, asking about the changes from the twentieth-century series. Partly, this was purely practical. Casting a great Doctor, and one who could carry off a darker feel to ground the series, was crucial, so Christopher Eccleston was a perfect choice. The removal of some associations from the past (he mentioned frock coats in particular) was necessary to get a new audience, unfamiliar with the earlier incarnation, into the show. The biggest impact came from changes behind the screen, and the movement from a studio-based, multicamera, theatrical style to single-camera shooting. This ensured that the series could be much more dynamic—as Donna says in The Doctor’s Daughter, there’s an outrageous amount of running involved. The other impact of the single camera was to produce a much more character-based drama, as the camera is always on actor, with close-ups meaning there’s nowhere to hide. As such, New Who was always going to be much more about the characters of the Doctor and his companions, rather than the monsters and schemes of old. As he puts it, it’s “not better, just a different way of writing.”
The family aspect arose from his writing style. Some people at the time were unhappy with this perceived incursion of soap opera into Doctor Who (look at Aliens of London/World War Three on The Doctor Who Ratings Guide for some particularly… interesting examples), but this was not an intentional choice. As he put it, there was no production bible that he gave to the BBC, with the commandment “I will have mothers!” Indeed, were he to write Jesus (which he sort of has, via The Second Coming), he’d bring Mary into it. Furthermore, he clearly enjoys spending time with the characters he created (“Good old Jackie!”), and so with the family around, elements of soap naturally come to the fore. He maintains that New Who is not soap opera proper, as the characters become embroiled within the lives of Rose and the Doctor, rather than the other way around. He also sees this, and Rose in particular, as something of a reaction against, rather than a homage to, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While violence can produce a strong female character, Russell doesn’t see violence as “an admirable side of TV.” Family can make a character strong, and so Jackie, Mickey and Pete came along to shape Rose’s journey through the show, without a lot of violence onscreen—though death was another matter. This style of creating a character also means that Rose is harder edged than she might otherwise be, had she been produced in the perfectly-manicured Buffy mould.
This sense of continuity through his work, returning to familiar styles and cast, was also true elsewhere in Doctor Who. The casting of David Tennant as Eccleston’s successor was assured after showing him a rough cut of Rose’s Auton attack in the edit suite while making Casanova, and seeing his excited reaction. Russell was clearly relieved to pass Doctor Who on, not least as he was exhausted, but with such an energy as his, there were new ideas for new shows, so it made sense to hand over to Steven Moffat alongside the regeneration from Tennant to Matt Smith. Discussion turned to the scene from The End of Time Part Two shown at the start of the event. It was a bit contrived, (“What’s a nuclear bolt?” he asked jokingly) but also showcased the talents of all involved. Murray Gold’s beautiful score, Euros Lyn’s unrelenting camera work, and David Tennant going through the five stages of grief in just a few minutes. He was keen to see a selfish Doctor, looking at how it would play out, and asserted that the scene could be performed just as well by Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker or other twentieth-century Doctors.
Doctor Who questions were unsurprisingly prominent in the Q+A. Inevitably, there was a focus on the latest series, with the prospect of three companions being raised. Would he have considered it, or was it too difficult? “Piece of piss,” he replied, as it’s not necessarily harder to write for, just requiring a different writing style to accommodate the various relationships. The recently revealed presence of the Judoon in Series Twelve also reared its head, with Russell disclosing that he’d known for six months after they’d requested to use the rights, and received £500 in royalties. He’s happy to see them make a comeback, and wished Series Twelve all the best. As a fan of Doctor Who novels, I also asked him, as an author of a couple himself, whether he’d considered adapting any more of the back catalogue in addition to Human Nature? He hadn’t, as Paul Cornell’s masterpiece had always stood out to him as it did something completely different to what had gone before, and in an incredible way. Of course, one could argue that more than a bit of Russell’s own New Adventure Damaged Goods has bled into the new series, but that once again is a matter of convergent writing, rather than intentional crossover. The inevitable question, that concerning favourite/least favourite episodes, was also present, but quickly dismissed, as Russell says that he loves all his episodes equally, as someone will always be pleased by each one. Torchwood also made a brief cameo via a question aboutChildren of Earth (2009), with his tendency to develop family naturally bringing Ianto’s sister into the scene, and was pleased that episode five all came off as well as it did, especially as it was written in something of a rush after another writer’s script fell through.
Beyond the TARDIS
With the hurdle of Doctor Who cleared, the conversation resumed its chronological progress. While A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been Russell’s lucky break to get into TV, it certainly wasn’t when he was trying to adapt it for BBC One. Provost Jonathan Bate was able to contribute more here, being a Shakespeare scholar himself. Around the time of production he had awarded Russell an honorary fellowship of the college. Russell was thankful for the support he had received from the provost, who convinced him to fight on in the face of budget cuts when he was feeling low, and so it eventually was made for broadcast in 2016. Jonathan Bate mentioned that it was his preferred adaptation for getting teenagers into Shakespeare, and mentioned that the Daily Mail wasn’t best pleased with a lesbian kiss in the production. You could almost see the twinkle in Russell’s eye as he responded, “my work here is done!”
While Shakespeare may have liked to write about political intrigue and farce, even he was unlikely to have created such an improbable set of circumstances as were found in the Jeremy Thorpe trial, the subject of A Very English Scandal (2018). Russell noted that despite the attention paid to it by the press, and the efforts some of the people involved went to, that the stakes were never high. Thorpe would never have become prime minister, no-one went to prison or died, with the exception of a dog. Russell really dislikes dogs, it seems—“I only agreed to write it because of that,” he joked. The frontloading of drama and farce in equal measure undermines the trial, as it wasn’t that dramatic in reality. As such, he wasn’t averse to use all his tricks to build it up, annoying a few factcheckers in the process. For example, Norman Scott needed a triumphant moment, even if he didn’t have one in real life. He was also very thankful to the cast, especially Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, firmly believing, as with Doctor Who, that only the right cast can make something work.
Years and Years and years
It didn’t seem like Russell had been talking for that long at all, but the hour was nearly up and Years and Years was upon us. Emma Thompson was another casting coup, joking that he only works “with people who were famous thirty years ago!” The initial concept was based on certain EastEndersepisodes of the 1980s, where current politics might be worked into the script around election night, as generally, drama is often divorced from the real world due to its production time. He wanted to get reality into TV, rather than other way around. Years and Years arrived as a metaphor for the current state of the world, with Britain being put through the trials that other countries face every day, along with some futuristic ones. “We’re safe in this country, generally all right, but what happens if the world’s problems come home to roost?” He mentioned the death of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned crossing from Syria, as an example of something that led to widespread calls for change, which was followed up with hollow promises. Indeed, he argues the situation has arguably grown worse, despite our increased awareness. Years and Years stretches this to its natural conclusion, seeing how our “paper thin” society would react to the traumas that others endure daily. He doesn’t mind about being wrong in how it plays out, as he sees an impermanence to all of his writing, inspired by the Greek and Roman myths he’d heard from his parents, both Classics teachers. There was also mention of Doris Day’s death, which helped to identify the news as current, separating it from the interminable mundanity of Brexit. As he put it, jokingly, “she died for us!” There were also a few spoilers ahead of episode three and beyond, in response to a question about representation from the audience, giving us some small foreknowledge of the character arcs of Lincoln and Bethany, among others.
There was also just enough time for a bit about the future. Russell’s next project is perhaps the natural successor to Queer as Folk and Cucumber, this time heading back to the 1981 to explore the lives of three boys moving to London for the first time (though still filmed in Manchester—none of his productions have been based in London, he noted), as HIV/AIDS becomes known. He wants to explore how their lives play out, see the resistance they face and the joy they experience. He mentions that through productions like Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America, we know the US perspective on the period, but not that of the UK—yet. It’s currently in pre-production, and they hope to film in the autumn.
After the talk, Russell was happy to stick around for over forty minutes, talking to attendees, posing for photographs, and signing books. Though Jonathan Bate attempted to extricate him many times (a plot to distract the provost with questions about Shakespearean authorship was not needed, in the end), he met everyone individually and was only too happy to discuss various points. It was a wonderful event, celebrating a lovely person and passionate Doctor Who fan, at the college he attended all those years ago.
This article was first published in The Tides of Time Special Edition Summer 2019