Russell T Davies: interview

'Doctor Who' is back this Easter weekend for a one-off special, and in a Time Out exclusive departing head honcho Russell T Davies gives Gabriel Tate a taste of what to expect

  • Russell T Davies: interview

    Russell T Davies © BBC

  • So, what happens then?
    'Ha ha! Yeah – an elephant falls on his head. Death by circus.'

    Did you start with the Doctor's death write back from it, or the other way around?
    'Interesting. I’ve known exactly how he would die for a couple of years, just as I did with Chris Eccleston. The detail has changed, but I always have an end point in mind. The journey has changed – some characters and so on – but I knew the why, the how and what the reaction would be. Ha ha! Like it’s real!'

    Is he going to get to be with Rose?
    'Shaddap! Give up now! Ha-ha! Wouldn’t it be brilliant though?I’d love to give away the entire ending. Can you imagine the BBC?'

    I promise I won’t print it.

    'Ha ha! I’m dying to do it one day, because what could they do? There’d be smoke coming out of people’s ears and they couldn’t stop me and they couldn’t stop you. Ha ha! What happens is, he does this, she does that…'

    Aha, so 'he does this' – interesting…
    'Ah, there you go. I’ve probably given away too much. Ha ha!'

    Can you safely dispel the rumour that the whole of 'Doctor Who' is a biblical parallel?
    Who came up with that one, in a godless world? People are so dumb about religion. "Doctor Who" is mythic, so it happens in a drama that naturally has things like bright shining lights and people rising in the air, and people go: "Oh, that’s Christian, therefore the whole programme is Christian!" I’m saying the exact opposite  of that. When someone is surrounded by magnificent golden light and has the power of life or death, it’s Rose Tyler, a shopgirl from London.'

    But Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth!

    'Exactly! That’s what he was and that’s all he was. We’re stupid enough to invest that with divine qualities and there’s no such fucking thing! Don’t start me on that one.'

    What’s the most absurd theory you’ve heard about 'Doctor Who'?

    'Oh God. I suppose there are millions online. The one that pisses me off is the one about there being a gay agenda. Fucking hell… I won’t even give that one oxygen. It’s not just annoying, it’s abhorrent. Just sick kids, schoolyard shit. I don’t pay it much attention. This is the first time I’ve thought about it in months. You shouldn’t go online and read anything there.'

    John Simm told me that you’d advised him never to look at the 'Doctor Who' fansites.

    'Oh yes, he made the mistake of going online. I was like, come back John, back from the brink, my love.'

    He’s back now.

    'Is he? I don’t know. Stop it, you’re bad. He hasn’t been spotted by anyone filming yet, so how can he be? Ha ha! I’d give that a few more days to be honest…'

    Isn’t the new time slot a bit early?
    'I complained about the time slot before, when it went out at 6pm instead of 7pm at Christmas, and I looked like an arse because we got 13 million viewers. I was sitting there on Boxing Day thinking: I know nothing. We were arguing about it the other day, whether we should go out before or after "Robin Hood", and their argument was that ‘Doctor Who’ is a gateway to the rest of Saturday night. I can’t really argue with it, it’s a weirdly indestructible show at the moment. Famous last words – watch us get beaten by "Primeval" now.'

    Were there frantic rewrites with the double-decker bus when it got damaged during filming?
    'I actually laughed and laughed. There was frantic work for a lot of people, but I thought of the solution in about a minute flat: that’s just what happens when a bus goes through a wormhole, it looks a bit worse for wear. You won’t even notice the rewrite. The most important thing was that no one was hurt. A damaged double-decker looks beautiful in a way. There were other options, but they would have twisted the plot so badly that it would have broken in half. Having worked on soaps for years, you have people dropping dead or having surgery and have to write round it. I remember an episode of "Crossroads" years ago where the announcer said beforehand, "The part of Mrs Smith will now be played by Wendy Williams." God knows what had happened, but they’d swapped actors overnight and you just went with it.'

    You’ve come in for some criticism for shooting in Dubai.
    'From some blogs, yeah. I knew what we were doing. I didn’t personally choose the location, but I’m not ducking out of it now, I am the exec producer. But of course we filmed there. What are we suggesting, that we isolate the whole Arab world? Or the whole Islamic world? Do we cut them off? Do they cut us off? It’s not the way anyone engages with the modern world at all, I wouldn’t do that on a personal level or a professional level. Underneath it all is a subtle form of racism at work there that says white westerners are encouraged to love ethnic races, unless they’re rich. All these countries are running out of oil, so they have to build these giant hotels, because all they can do is engage with the West. After that the laws will change and the culture will change and we will assimilate with them as well. It’s a big cultural process and nothing is ever gained by saying: "We’re not going there." Would you refuse to go into a room with an Arab? Where does that get people? I’m not saying we Westernise them, it’ll go the other way and happen in ways we don’t like personally as well. If you isolate them then you end up with Zimbabwe or with what’s happening in Senegal.'

    What are your particular highs and lows of working on the series?

    'Everything’s a high! It’s all marvellous! I honestly don’t think we’ve made a bad episode. Some experiments might not work, but even the failures are glorious. This programme was dead. It was a joke. To see it now, doing so well, so alive and with kids loving it so much and clutching their Dalek toys… Cardiff is a bit of a "Doctor Who" tourism magnet now, so I get children walking up to me and saying how much they love or hate things. I sound sentimental, but it’s the greatest privilege in the world. It’s astonishing. Before we started on "Doctor Who" we had serious BBC research saying we’d never get the young audience back because they’ve got "Harry Potter", "Star Wars", Xboxes… I believed that research and fell into that Daily Mail trap of writing kids off as knife-carrying hoodies and demonising them, but this show talks creatively to children en masse and sparks their imagination. To see that is the greatest high, it’s revolutionised my opinion of children. I realised how cynical I’d been. The low point would be the workload, but it’s entirely of my own making. We were determined to make Wales a centre for TV production, and now they’re filming "Casualty" there, but that meant inventing "The Sarah Jane Adventures" and "Torchwood". That was maybe a bit mad, and I’ve neglected and ignored people as a result. All through my own fault. But I’d do the same again. They can wait – tough shit! Ha ha!'

    You mentioned in 'A Writer’s Tale' that Dennis Hopper was one guest star who got away. Were there others?
    'Millions! The one I would have loved above all else – and call me old-fashioned – was Catherine Zeta-Jones. She’s spoken of with delight in Swansea. A Swansea girl has made it all the way to the top of the tree. But we got most people, and I’m thrilled to have broken new people: Lenora Crichlow, Freema [Agyeman], both rolling on to great big careers. Lovely.'

    Do you feel you’re a better writer now than you were when you started 'Doctor Who'?

    'Hmm, interesting. I’ll probably know that when I go on to write something else. I worry that I’ve learnt things I’ll never be able to use again. I can put together a chase scene now from page to direction to edit. But if I end up writing a drama about two gay men sitting in a kitchen in Manchester, you can’t really have a wall explode or a car come through the window.'

    A sonic screwdriver isn’t going to fix their problems.
    'Exactly. I did learn that – in science fiction – sometimes you have to say exactly what’s going on. I’ve built a good career on, dare I say it, subtle writing – "Queer As Folk" was ten episodes of two men not telling each other they loved each other. The climax of the eight episode – where Stuart says something to Vince – is huge and colossal and epic, because it’s so intimate. It’s subtext, but sometimes in "Doctor Who" you need the line where the man says, "I’m going to kill you all." It’s just more satisfying – I think that’s true of science fiction, and of no other drama. There’s something heightened and cartoony about it. God knows what I’ll do when I come to write something domestic. It’ll probably be, like, a radio play: "I’m picking up the kettle. I’m making you a cup of tea. I’m stirring the tea." Terrible! Ha ha!'

    What’s next for you?
    'I’ve sort of got a couple of things, but I’m wary of talking about it because the contract isn’t signed yet. It won’t be on for ages, so I’ll have a big holiday before that.'

    I’d seen something about ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’.
    'I’m helping a friend on that, script-editing and keeping my hand in.'

    What sort of an armchair critic of ‘Doctor Who’ will you be?
    'I’ll be monstrous, emailing Steven Moffat saying things like, " 'Doctor Who'  died today…" No, I really hope I can just sit back and enjoy them. To be completely honest, I can sit and enjoy my own episodes. I can channel-hop and find a two-year-old episode on BBC3 and just love it. I saw the one where the Master’s taking over the Earth the other day, and reacted to it like a seven year old. "Oh God, they killed the president!" Ha-ha! Anyway, how brilliant is it having Steven, though? At the moment we get one Steven Moffat script a year, now we’ll probably get five or six if we’re lucky. Knowing "Doctor Who", we’ll probably get seven or eight. I’d hate to be the person sniping away, I won’t let it happen.'

    Do you have any parting advice for Steven?
    'We did have a big lunch, but what can I tell him about drama ? He knows everything already. The only thing I could say was about BBC structures, keep your eye on that department, don’t believe a word she says, listen to everything he says, that sort of thing. But he doesn’t even need that, it’s all common sense.I had a list of about 500 things to tell him, but I launched into them then just stopped, and we just gossiped and had a laugh and talked about "Doctor Who". We had a nice talk about writers and who’d be good. We’ve been doing this for five years, and every system builds up its own eccentricities. It takes a cold eye to say: "What are you doing that for?" And we’d say, well we’ve been doing it that way since day one. So someone new will say, what a waste of time, just cut the middleman out and so on.'

    What’s Matt Smith going to be providing that David Tennant can’t?
    'It’s hard to say, I literally don’t know him. All I know is that he’s a great actor and I loved him in "Party Animals". All you need is a great actor, combined with a great writer and a great production team. The Doctor will always be standing with an alien, saying "No, you can’t destroy the Earth." Matt Smith will say it in a Matt Smith way as David did it in a David way and Chris in a Chris way. I don’t know if they might play it as a young man with an older man’s brain or something. The scripts are being passed around, but I don’t really want to know. Don’t show me!'

    Don’t you want to know his first line? 'Hmm, new teeth' takes some following.
    'Yeah, ha ha! Steven will think of something even better though. I’ll have as much fun as everyone else finding out. Steven offered me the scripts to read, but I didn’t want to know. My dread is that people will be very polite and invite me to the series five launch party, and I’ll have to go, but I’ll be thinking: I wish this was a Saturday night and I was watching this on my own…'

    ‘Doctor Who’, Saturday, 6.45pm, BBC1

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