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I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much (2012)

2012-05-19 Times.jpg

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  • Publication: The Times
  • Date: 2012-05-19
  • Author: Lydia Slater
  • Page: Weekend, p. 2
  • Language: English

My weekend

TV writer Steven Moffat tells Lydia Slater why he chose the Tardis over Spielberg

Steven Moffat's neat little villa near Kew Gardens looks as suburban as its neighbours. But things are not what they seem. For one thing, it contains a piece of the Tardis. "It's a wee keyboard that they weren't going to use any more so they gave it to me. I was quite excited by that," Moffat says.

The sitting room is normal-looking, furnished with green sofas, a fluffy cat and Moffat himself, a chunky, grizzled 50-year-old. But surrounding the TV is an entire wall of awards including a clutch of Baftas, the first, now tarnished, won for Press Gang, which he wrote 20 years ago, the latest carried off on Sunday at the British Academy Television Craft Awards for writing Sherlock.

Now Moffat has got to find room for another, next Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall, he will be presented with the Special Award at the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards to recognise his outstanding creative writing contribution to television.

As the writer of Dr Who and Sherlock, two of the wittiest and most gripping shows on British television, he is understandably irritated by people who insist that American TV is superior. "Americans go on about British TV!" he says in his soft Scottish accent. "I've just been on the phone to someone from Variety, asking about all the British imports that are doing so well, like Downton Abbey and Sherlock. And Dr Who was the most downloaded show from iTunes in America last year."

Surprisingly, he hasn't watched any grim Scandi TV yet — "I've been very busy," he excuses himself. "I'm on Dr Who full time at the moment. Oh God," he says momentarily appalled, "we've got so much to do. We've finished five episodes and we're about to start our sixth with the new companion. And we start shooting Sherlock in January." Has he written it yet? "No," he says with a slightly nervous giggle.

I'm not surprised he's worried, given that he's somehow got to bring Sherlock back from an on-screen death plunge without cheating, but he says that he and co-creator Mark Gatiss have it all worked out. "It's entirely logical and it's not beyond the wit of a TV audience to work it out. I can't believe someone hasn't. The audience is incredibly smart, and they will always get there before you. Kids will watch Dr Who while playing Angry Birds and tweeting their friends about both."

Moffat has complained about viewers tweeting during his shows. "I don't really mean it," he says. "I was being a grumpy old man, saying 'For goodness sake, keep your eyes on the screen, we've spent millions on this, you bastards!' But if they're capable of tweeting and watching television, they're smarter than I am." The Moff, as his fans know him, has some 315,000 Twitter followers himself, desperate for revelations on how matters are progressing on Gallifrey and Baker Street.

"The shows both have very devoted followings," he says. "The surprising thing about Sherlock's fandom is that it's incredibly female." I say that I don't think it's all that surprising, thinking of dishy Benedict Cumberbatch saving the world with his giant brain. "He's a handsome, remote genius," agrees Moffat. "He's impersonating a glacier but actually he's a volcano —or actually that's what I imagine his frantic and amorous female following are thinking. God, I'll get into trouble for that one. It's me being sexist again, I tell ya. It'll be sexist that I said women sometimes fancy men ..."

Moffat has felt unfairly smeared as some kind of male chauvinist dinosaur since the critic Jane Clare Jones complained that his version of Irene Adler, who outwits Holmes in the Conan Doyle story A Scandal in Bohemia, was merely a "high-class dominatrix saved only from certain death by the dramatic intervention of our hero". She also claimed that his female characters in Dr Who were tired old tropes".

"It's so unfair!" says Moffat, genuinely indignant "Dippy, left-wing, PC, liberal me—and suddenly I've been given the sexual politics of Connery in Goldfinger but with neither the grace nor the looks. I'm ugly Sixties Bond— how much worse can you get? "Yet I am not like that! It's men I can't stand," he goes on. "Gays and geeks are OK, but real men are awful. Those blokes who say: 'How does your car hold the road?' And you're thinking 'Gravity!' And don't ask me about football," he shudders. Still, it's hard to see him as an über-feminist when he boasts, as he once did, that before he met his second wife, the TV producer, Sue Vertue, he "shagged" his way round television studios "like a mechanical digger".

"I wish that quote would go away! How do mechanical diggers shag? That's what I want to know. What did I mean? That I killed several women and buried them?" By now, he is heaving with laughter and makir5 digger noises. "What a terrible thing to say," he says, when he's recovered. "I apologise on behalf of my callow youth." Does he regret it?" I don't regret doing it, I regret that I later chose to compare it to building equipment, which is either psychotic or conceited, I can't work out which." Did it get the wild oats out of his system? "Um, not especially," he admits. "I don't want to exaggerate my modest triumphs but I fear it's a little late for that. I had a great time, as most young men would."

Moffat was brought up in Paisley, the eldest of three children. He says that he knew very early on that he wanted to write. "I Used to write Dr Who scripts as a kid, and Sherlock Holmes stories. I haven't moved on much," he admits. He was "obsessed" with Dr Who. "I was very worried about missing it, and I used to dread the idea that it would be on when we went away on our six-week holiday to Cornwall and there wouldn't be a TV in the caravan."

Moffat became a teacher, and only got his writing break when Harry Secombe's show Highway was filmed at the school where his father was headmaster. "Dad spoke to the producer, saying he had a great idea for a kids' TV show about a school newspaper."

Two years later, the BBC telephoned asking Moffat Sr if they could develop the idea on spec, and he agreed on condition his son was allowed to write a sample script. The show became Press Ganig, Moffat wrote all of it and a star was born.

At the time, he was married to Maggie, an estate agent, who left him for another man. Devastated, Moffat took minor revenge on his rival, a man called Brian, by writing a character into Press Gang called Brian Magboy, who had a typewriter fall onto his foot. Subsequently, he mined his experience of the split for Joking Apart, a sitcom about a writer in the throes of divorce. "It's hard now to get real sympathy for a divorce about which you've written a sitcom, but it was very horrible," he says. "It was a miserable, miserable time."

Was it cathartic to write about? "I don't think writing is particularly cathartic. But what else are you going to make jokes about? That whole misery of a broken relationship and an altered future is in front of you. It's what you're thinking about, therefore it's what you're making jokes about. And if you make a joke about something, fora second you're bigger than it. Then you go home and sob into your pillow."

After his mechanical digger phase, he met Vertue at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1996. They are happily married with two sons, Joshua, 12, and Louis, 10, though Moffat says he only had children because he was told to, and dreaded the idea of pregnancy "completely".

"Your wife turns into a boat, and shortly after that you never sleep again and you clean shit off someone. It doesn't seem like a very appealing prospect. Obviously, the moment I saw my child, that was different, but up until that point, I was thinking 'how long before she gets back to normal size? Will this damage anything?" He's laughing, but I fear his feminist credentials are in jeopardy again.

Moffat chronicled their relationship in Coupling, the award-winning sitcom starring Jack Davenport and Sarah Alexander, which Vertue produced. When he was offered his dream job. Dr Who's head writer in 2008, he was in Hollywood, having been contracted to write three Tintin films for Steven Spielberg. He left without hesitaion. "There was this opportunity for worse weather, more work and less money —come on!" Spielberg, he says, was "lovely about it. He could have sued me but he's a Dr Who fan anyway".

And he has no regrets about swapping the City of Angels for Kew? "I'm not a fan of LA, I don't like it out there, it's far too sunny and there are too many beaches. And people don't drink at all."

So what does he do on his downtime? "I don't have any," he says. "I try not to work the seven days but I mostly do." Occasionally, he submits to being taken on holiday, but he sits in the room and writes. "I prefer the air-con to the hot weather. Sometimes I don't even know what country I'm in." And why would he care, when he just needs to retreat into his formidable imagination to find himself in his favourite place, spinning across the Universe in a police phone box.

The Argiva British Academy Television Awards are on BBC One at 8pm on May 27. 'Vote for the YouTube Audience Award at www.youtube.com/baftaonline

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Slater, Lydia (2012-05-19). I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much. The Times p. Weekend, p. 2.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Slater, Lydia. "I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much." The Times [add city] 2012-05-19, Weekend, p. 2. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Slater, Lydia. "I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much." The Times, edition, sec., 2012-05-19
  • Turabian: Slater, Lydia. "I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much." The Times, 2012-05-19, section, Weekend, p. 2 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/I_wrote_Dr_Who_scripts_as_a_kid._I_haven%27t_moved_on_much | work=The Times | pages=Weekend, p. 2 | date=2012-05-19 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 July 2017 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=I wrote Dr Who scripts as a kid. I haven't moved on much | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/I_wrote_Dr_Who_scripts_as_a_kid._I_haven%27t_moved_on_much | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 July 2017}}</ref>