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Quick! Behind the sofa!

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Russell T Davies on reviving Doctor Who

Doctoring the Tardis

Russell T Davies has fulfilled a lifelong ambition by bringing a TV classic back to Saturday nights on BBC1, but he still has no idea how it happened, he tells Gareth McLean

A man immersed in quantum physics and the ins and outs of intergalactic exploration might be expected to be able to work a VCR. But no. In his hand, Russell T Davies has a promo tape of the eagerly anticipated new £10m series of Doctor Who, written and executive produced by Davies and starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper: "Bugger," he says, as we crouch, bemused, in front of the video like two monkeys who have just been handed a clock. "I knew this would happen?'

It is not strictly true that we cannot watch it: we can, once we have worked out which cable needs to be plugged in at the back of the machine. We just cannot get the sound to work properly. So, in a room in a west London hotel which is Davies's base when he is in the capital, we watch Piper being chased by a legion of shop mannequins, an alien intervention at a Victorian seance, and a spaceship doing serious damage to Big Ben - all to a soundtrack provided by a channel on the hotel television that appears to be German MTV. Thus, the Doctor confronts a Dalek (and you can bet that does not end well) accompanied by Guns N' Roses singing November Rain.

But then, you would not expect the reappearance of Gallifrey's most famous export to be straightforward. Since Doctor Who vanished from television in 1989, there have been rumours of his return. While he survived in print, in novels, comic books, online, in web-casts and the imaginings of fans, and in audio adventures, Doctor Who was deemed to be too naff, too niche to return to the small screen as a piece of mainstream entertainment; too cheap, too British in an age of razzy US sci-fi imports with high production values. Of course, there was the Who Goes to Hollywood movie in 1996 starring Paul McGann, but that hardly set the world alight; it was greeted at best with indifference and at worst with disdain.

And yet here we are, weeks away from the broadcast of 13 new Saturday-night episodes. It fulfils a cherished ambition of Davies, a life-long fan. Even now, he says he is not entirely sure how this reversal in the Doctor's fortunes came about. "They'd phone me up and say 'Do you want to write A Tale of Two Cities?' and I'd say 'No, I want to write Doctor Who.' I had two meetings, one in 1999 and one in 2002, where I told them what I would do with it, though I don't think they had any effect in themselves. But when Lorraine Heggessey [controller of BBC1] decided to bring it back, in their minds I was associated with it - which was brilliant. If I'd done that deliberately, I would think it a brilliant policy."

Davies is adept at self-deprecation. "I worried they meant a cheap pastiche version, or an ironic version, but it was the real deal - Saturday night, proper budgets. All those things you think you'd have to fight for. Astonishing. You don't get to see Lorraine Heggessey often - I've only met her twice - so you never have to that moment of being able to ask why she decided to bring it back. I've worked on it for a year now and I still don't know what happened at a very high level to get it returned."

Since the announcement of the revival of Doctor Who, there has been intense speculation over who would play the lead role, since the casting would set the tone for the show. "One newspaper said Paul Daniels might play the Doctor. Paul Daniels! How low was this programme in people's minds? It was a very important thing to drag it up. It's still fun and light and funny - like was in the first three years, before it went tragic - but it's still a drama. It's not light entertainment. Casting Chris and then Billie was a double whammy. I still can't believe we pulled it off. It single-handedly changed its image. You know episode one will go out and 15 reviews will say, 'I preferred it when there were wobbly sets: but I don't think that will be there for the younger audience."

And that younger audience is obviously important to Davies. "When I was eight, walking home from school down Hendrefoilan Avenue, I always used to think 'I could turn round the corner and the Tardis would be there - and I would run inside and I would fight alongside the Doctor.' It was the one programme that encouraged you to make up stories. The Tardis could land in the everyday world and no other science-fiction programme would do that. You were never going to be a member of the crew on the Enterprise when you were eight years old: it was in the future and they were the navy. Even if we don't get an audience, I hope there will be some eight-year-olds sitting there thinking the same thing. That's when I fell in love with it. I was transfixed'

While the new Who has aliens, trips in time and space, a Dalek - and yes, the same theme tune and title sequence, subtly updated - Davies says it was vital to bring it back to the real world: "It's the touchstone: this could happen to you." And back to earth it comes. To Cardiff, in fact, where the series has been shooting since July under a BBC Wales banner. An advocate of "the whole nations and regions thing", Davies, who was born in Swansea but lives in Manchester, says Cardiff is an underrated production centre. "There is loads of talent there, but it doesn't get to go on the network because it's S4C stuff. There is a resistance to Welshness and that needs to change. I want to do more with BBC Wales and the more work there is, the more work it generates."

Davies talks passionately about Doctor Who, but then he talks passionately about all his work - and quite right too. Since he made his name with Queer as Folk in 1999 - in which he familiarised hitherto ignorant sections of the Channel 4 audience with rimming and outraged all the usual suspects with depictions of underage gay sex - he has written some of the finest, funniest and cleverest drama of the last six years. From Bob and Rose, which ruffled feathers (some gay viewers objected to the tale of a gay man who fell in love with a woman), to The Second Coming ("brilliant and bold ... with a touch of the divine about it," the Guardian said), he has never shied away from the bold, the daring, the mischievous.

He is the man whom Paul Abbott asks for advice on his scripts. "He'll be brutally honest about elements that don't work, but use psychiatrically soothing vocabulary to make you feel good about making it better," the Shameless writer says. "That makes him a true friend. It also makes him one of the finest, hardest-working writers I know. When I was offered the job of producing Cracker, which involved a 75% pay drop for me, his was the advice I most trusted - 'Fuck it, just do it! It'll make you look taller, and Christ knows you need all the help you can get.' He's one of the few people in the industry who actually enjoys watching telly; anything from daytime high-carb shows to anything needing a bigger than average brain."

Red Productions' Nicola Shindler, who has collaborated with Davies on much of his work, from Queer as Folk to Mine All Mine, concurs. "His sense of humour and ability to put that into his scripts is unique. However dark a subject becomes, Russell knows that in life people find the funny side. I sometimes think his brilliant sense of humour means he hasn't been appreciated enough for his cleverness, though I am glad that that seems to be changing. I think there was a sense that because he's witty and funny he can't do the serious stuff. The truth is that Russell is a searingly clever man and often more intellectual than people who write scripts aimed at an intellectual elite."

It will not be a surprise to learn, therefore, that Casanova, his first foray into the more rarefied world of period drama (The Grand does not count since it was "an Upstairs Downstairs pastiche"), is smart, slick and sassy. When it airs this Sunday on BBC3, purists will not be pleased. Naturally, getting it made was "the usual nightmare': It was originally meant for ITV ("who are lovely, I won't knock them, they've been very good to me") but it wanted a two-hour version rather than the three hours Davies had written. "They said they liked it, but they didn't believe that people would come back to it."

So, the scripts went to the BBC where Julie Gardner, the then new head of drama at BBC Wales with whom Davies has since worked on Doctor Who, championed its making. The corporation was keen, but on account of it being an Idea of Michele Buck's at Granada, "an extraordinarily complicated contract" had to be drawn up naming her and Damien Timmer as executive producers along with Gardner and Davies. Then, it transpired that the only money available to make the drama was from a pot earmarked for regional independent producers.

And so, Davies was reunited with the Manchester-based Nicola Shindler and Red. "I had a great moment of phoning up Nicola, who reads everything I do anyway, and asking her if she wanted to make it. She was out walking by a reservoir with her baby. It was pure luck. Brilliant luck. So although it reads like a ridiculous list of executive producers [Shindler makes five], it wasn't a problem. We all loved it and we all wanted to make the same show."

Davies has never been one for the orthodox. While many of his ilk rail against reality TV, he embraces it. "There is absolutely no point in doing those stupid Edinburgh festival speeches with John Humphrys saying that reality TV is the end of the world. It's not. All saying that does is slap your age on you, a label that says 'I am past it. It's like bemoaning the invention of animation - 'Drawn people? You can't have drawn people on screen! It's an abomination.' No! It's fantastic. It's a different way of telling a story. The bigger thing that's happening is that the appetite for drama seems to be dwindling and the better drama is coming out of reality TV. There's more dramatic satisfaction to be had there, and it's brilliant. It's a big lesson for us all, but I don't know what the lesson is."

Whatever the lesson is, you suspect Davies will pick it up quicker than most. He started his career as a script editor on Children's Ward in 1991, under David Liddiment and Tony Wood, now Coronation Street producer, and alongside Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor. Wood recalls Davies's early work as "full of excitement and joie de vivre ... incredibly imaginative and visionary". He says that Davies's writing speaks to people in a very direct way. "Very few writers have that skill." Davies calls his time there "the best training, the best possible atmosphere ... I was really looked after, nurtured'.

Does he think the same atmosphere of nurturing he describes exists today for young writers? "I'm not entirely sure, but maybe I would say that. You see new names on the Street, or on Casualty, and good writers shine through. There might be someone sitting on Holby who, in 10 years, will be running television. Talent rises through the ranks. When you meet writers who have been writing for 20 years and have never got anything on screen, you know they're probably bad writers. Television is desperate for writers. No one says, 'Let's have less talent in here please?"

As befits a man with a working knowledge of the Tardis, Davies is optimistic about the future. Having spent much of the last year ricocheting between Doctor Who in Cardiff and Casanova in Manchester ("the worst journey on British Rail! Four hours of hell. It's like Calcutta! Sitting on a box of chickens with peasants hanging from the windows outside"), he's looking forward to relaxing. At least a little. He's also thinking about working with Red again on a drama "about MGM - more gay men. It's maybe time to revisit that subject." And, of course, there is the potential second series of Doctor Who. Of course, that is, if the Doctor defeats the biggest enemy of all. Not the Daleks, but, in the battle for Saturday night audiences, Ant and Dec. Scary stuff.

Messiahs, serial shaggers and Daleks-the world of Russell T Davies

Queer as Folk (1999)

Detailing the lives of three men in Manchester, Queer as Folk (pictured) remains the most realistic depiction of urban gay life ever on British TV. All the brilliance and awfulness is here - the tragedy, the humour, the glorious, gory entanglements - in the story of best mates Stuart (Craig Kelly) and Vince (Aldan Gillen) and a 15-year-old cutie called Nathan. A landmark Channel 4 drama, it is Davies's signature piece. "Six years ago, and still I do an interview every month about it - for some German gay magazine or another."

Bob and Rose (2001)

Starring Alan Davies and the sublime Lesley Sharp, Bob and Rose was a boy-meets-girl story with a twist: boy was gay but fell in love with a woman. Incredibly, Bob and Rose was on ITV. In primetime. It was critically acclaimed but fared badly in the ratings; the channel lost its nerve and bumped it into a later slot. Some people in the gay community accused Davies of a betrayal by "turning" Bob straight but it was actually based on a true story.

The Second Coming (2003)

In another surprise move for ITV1, Davies returned the Son of God to earth in the form of Steve Baxter, an assistant in a video shop. The series exemplified Davies's brilliance at establishing a high concept and making it utterly believable. Christopher Eccleston played Steve with support from Lesley Sharp, Ahsen Bhatti and Annabelle Apsion. Steve's story ended badly, but the drama itself was deftly written, extraordinarily bold, very funny and thought-provoking.

Mine All Mine (2004)

In Davies' hymn to his home town of Swansea, Griff Rhys Jones starred as Max Vivaldi, a man convinced his family used to own the city - and guess what? They did. As in Sally Wainwright's At Home with the Braithwaites, Davies's drama used an extraordinary event to explore the dynamics of one family. Yet another cracking cast assembled to bring Davies's glorious, eccentric world to life - but the ratings were poor and it was not Davies's best work.

Casanova (2005)

The gorgeously geeky David Tennant takes on the title role as Davies rehabilitates Casanova. He is still a serial shagger, but women love him because he listens to them. Peter O'Toole plays the aged lothario looking back on the loves of his life. Another Red production, it is a glorious romp through 18th-century Europe and BBC3's first costume drama. Of Casanova, Davies says: "Best subject in the world - men and sex!"

Doctor Who (2005)

As lead writer and executive producer, Davies has assembled a formidable cast, and impressive writers. His passion for the project is apparent as he reinvigorates a tired science-fiction franchise and introduces a brand new generation of kids to the Daleks. His ear for dialogue has never been keener as Rose asks the Doctor: "If you're an alien, how come you sound like you're from the north?" "Lots of planets have norths".

Caption: Who's Who ... After all the speculation over the casting, Christopher Eccleston takes the lead role in Russell T Davies's revival of Doctor Who, while Billie Piper plays his assistant, Rose

Caption: Time travel ... Casanova, to be aired on Sunday on BBC3, is Davies's first historical drama BBC/Red Productions

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  • APA 6th ed.: McLean, Gareth (2005-03-07). Quick! Behind the sofa!. The Guardian p. Media, p. 1.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Quick! Behind the sofa! | url=!_Behind_the_sofa! | work=The Guardian | pages=Media, p. 1 | date=2005-03-07 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 May 2024 }}</ref>
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