Saturday, October 18, 2008

Diary of Russell T Davies, aged 45 and three quarters

Book cover of Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale - Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook

Russell T Davies has been associated with bringing Doctor Who back onto the screens of BBC One after a long absence. The combination of his writing ability, together with Julie Gardner’s production expertise seemed to take the risk out of reviving the science fiction show and making it in Cardiff.

Davies early TV experience started in children’s television production (even presenting a single episode of Play School) before changing emphasis to writing cheap’n’cheerful daytime soaps, ITV’s The Grand, Channel 4’s Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose and The Second Coming. And then he became show runner (combined writer, producer, and holding-the-show-together role) for Doctor Who, Torchwood and other spin-offs.

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale documents Davies’ email correspondence with Ben Cook, a Who aficionado writing for Doctor Who Magazine. For a year, as the fourth series was written, filmed and edited, Davies and Cook talked about the behind-the-scenes chaos and drama. Davies was remarkably frank – even with the opportunity to edit the conversation before publication – though the book’s publication does come as he starts to bow out of the programme and hand over to Steven Moffat.

In between questions and emails, the book is peppered with Davies’ scripts, walking the reader through the process of writing the first draft and the subsequent edits to get down to the right length and an affordable special effects budget.

Davies’ life in his Cardiff flat away from his Manchester home is full of juggling writing episodes out of sequence, editing and rewriting other people’s scripts, tone meetings and read throughs (and subsequent rewrites) for episodes about to be filmed, starting the editing process to tighten up already filmed episodes, as well as consideration for launch events, Christmas specials and the next series.

“I never think of it as work, really, no matter how much hard graft I actually do. Even if no one ever saw this stuff, I’d be doing it anyway.”

It’s funny to discover how quickly he generates ideas for big themes – the “One of them will die” prophecy – and then spends months changing his mind about how it’ll be played out on-screen. His ability to delay and procrastinate feel familiar :( yet he takes it to a whole new level.

Missing award ceremonies because he’s running behind with a story. It’s not uncommon to start costing (and even filming) without the script finished and locked down. And since Davies doesn’t write all the scripts for the series, he ends up editing them, in some cases rewriting all but the gist of the original author’s idea. Further slowing him down!

There’s a dichotomy to Davies’ role. While he torments himself over every last line in the script while writing it until the point of delivering to the production team, he then shifts into Executive Producer mode and detaches himself from the emotion he poured into the story and allows scenes and characters to be chopped for production and cost reasons without hardly a second thought.

A perfection writer, but a pragmatic producer (aided by Julie Gardner’s ability to sweet talk extra money, minutes or both out of the BBC’s Head of Fiction, Jane Tranter).

It’s a weighty tome – certainly not a book to be carried on the bus – and while it only covers the fourth series, it is an excellent read for Whovians and more normal Who-fans. To be honest, I skipped over most of the script extracts to get back to the fascinating Russell and Ben ping pong email chain.


paul c said...

Thanks for the overview of the show. The CBC in Canada is also showing it and I have been somewhat puzzled about some of the plot developments and themes.

shirley said...

alan-in-belfast, thanks for this post. i wasn't aware of this book but right before christmas is a really nie time to be enlightened! :)