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Let’s do the Time Lord again: Laurie Penny and Nicholas Lezard debate Doctor Who

With Peter Capaldi about to step into the Doctor’s shoes, two passionate Whovians talk to Helen Lewis about favourite companions, gender politics and missing theremins. 

Unleash the psychic paper: our own Doctor Lezard and his companion Captain Penny. Photograph: Charlie Forgham-Bailey

“Doctor Who” returns to our TV screens on 23 August with a brand new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. That Nicholas Lezard bears a passing resemblance to Capaldi seemed like a good excuse to get our columnist together with our contributing editor, Laurie Penny, to talk about the long-running series.

Helen Lewis First, easy question: who’s your favourite Doctor?

Laurie Penny They say you never forget your first Doctor and mine was Christopher Eccleston. He was cool, and tortured, and moody and sexy.

Nicholas Lezard Patrick Troughton was my first Doctor, so I liked the way Matt Smith channelled him. When Eccleston came along, I had to readjust – it was very well done, because it wasn’t trying to self-consciously go back to the old Doctor Who. And I had children by that stage and they were watching it for the first time. They got interested very quickly – they got shivers down the back of their necks and they didn’t even know why. It’s as if there’s something ingrained in the British psyche which responds to Doctor Who.

LP And then Billie Piper was the first companion of the reboot; I had to explain to some Americans the other day that, for us, seeing Billie Piper on the screen –

HL You thought she’d walk round singing: “Because we want to!” That’s something that gets overlooked now: how much Russell T Davies was known as the guy who wrote Queer As Folk – this hardcore, groundbreaking Channel 4 series. Added to which you’ve got a companion best known as being . . . I wouldn’t say a female Chesney Hawkes; that would be overly harsh.

LP The fact that Russell T Davies came from Queer As Folk was really important. For a lot of the people who I knew were watching Doctor Who for the first time, that series was really important because of the queer content and the diversity of the characters. Davies’s agenda is incredibly obvious in his run of the show – which all the right-wing commentators thought was terrible – but that’s exactly why I loved it: the idea that there could be a future where everybody was bi and gay and that was fine.

HL There are two great moments on that score. The first is obviously John Barrowman [Captain Jack Harkness] – when he kisses Rose and the Doctor goodbye and gives them exactly the same kiss – but also the bit with Lesley Sharp’s character in Midnight, which is one of these claustrophobic episodes set inside a cargo container. There was a reference to a partner of hers, and it was just “she”, and that was fine.

Did all of that gender politics leave you cold, Nick, or did you appreciate it?

NL It didn’t leave me cold; I like it. Russell T Davies deserves some kind of official recognition for what he’s done, not only bringing traditional families back together – you’ve got people from different generations saying, “Quick, Doctor Who is on” – but also inserting into that the notion that there are other kinds of relationship as well.

He did it deftly, charmingly, and with just the right amount of bravery and humour. He is exactly my age, so I suppose what I feel about Doctor Who is pretty much what he feels about Doctor Who. He was always going to be mindful of my generation’s sympathies and ideas of the show.

HL There were some cracking episodes. School Reunion, the one where Sarah Jane comes back . . .

NL Oh, I cried.

LP Heartbreaking.

HL That’s going to be blubtastic for anyone over a certain age, isn’t it?

The other great ones are The Family of Blood, written by Paul Cornell, which is based on a book, and the Steven Moffat episodes . . . But can you get over the absolute stinkers? I mean, Love and Monsters, which ends with a guy saying that his girlfriend’s turned into a paving slab and they still have a sex life . . .

NL Was that the one with the fans?

HL Yes, with Peter Kay as a fat monster . . .

LP Children’s drawings and monsters made of human fat are generally things to avoid. But if you look back on the old ones, even the deftly scripted episodes have terrible special effects. What is it, The Ark in Space? Where everyone’s terrified of the maggots that have infested the space station and it’s a man in a green sleeping bag, wiggling down the BBC corridor?

HL The regeneration of Colin Baker has to take top honours, with that wibbly-wobbly music in the background. Nick, do you have a favourite from the old series?

NL One thing that they’ve lost is the excitement in the theme music. The original theme, where you’d see these psychedelic patterns that gradually merged into Patrick Troughton’s face, was terrifying. To watch that as a three-year-old is why I can remember my childhood so well; that image was seared into my mind. And also the strange simplicity of Delia Derbyshire’s electronic arrangement has been a little lost with the over-orchestration of the theme tune.

LP You can’t hear the theremin?!

NL You can just about hear it. I liked it very much when they did the 50th-anniversary episode, when they suddenly went back to the William Hartnell theme music and graphics. I jumped up at that point.

My children told me to shut up; they were watching the show –

LP I loved watching Doctor Who with your kids. Me and Nick used to live together, for people who don’t know –

HL For people who missed all those columns that you both wrote.

LP Yes. So we would always watch Doctor Who, and it was an interesting experience, watching these little boys watch it for the first time.

HL It’s great watching it like that. All they really want is a good, scary baddy, preferably dripping ooze. It’s nice to be reminded that you might be sitting there thinking, “Well, this isn’t really enough like The Usual Suspects for my taste,” but that’s not what they had in mind while they were writing it.

Something I miss from the series before the break is that they would do a plotline over six episodes, say. They’ve ended up relying on two-parters more and more, because trying to squeeze a set-up, a decent story and a resolution into 45 minutes is hard, particularly if they have to sell a new race or something complicated.

NL You can do it, I think, with things like the Weeping Angels; that wasn’t a two-parter and that worked very well. And those “Doctor-light” episodes.

LP Back in the day, Steven Moffat taking over the writing of Doctor Who was going to be the best thing ever (rather than the disaster for its gender politics that it has become), because he wrote The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, and the Silence in the Library double-parter, and Blink, and The Girl in the Fireplace, all of which were among the best episodes of the reboot. But under him as showrunner it became, as it always does, a different show.

HL Russell T Davies’s book talks about how he had to do all the polishes of everyone else’s script, and write the season finales and openers himself. There was a criticism by a Seventies Doctor Who writer that Davies became a “first-draft writer”. He would have these amazing ideas and throw them all down, but he never did the work you had to do to make it come across as very tight.

The opposite happened with Steven Moffat: he was such a tight writer, everything like clockwork, that he came to rely on it too much, and ended up reusing the same characters and tropes. Which is why you get these extraneous appendage women who turn up and constantly need saving.

LP I think this is where Nick and I disagree. I am not a fan of the way the companions have been used after Donna, who was the best thing that’s happened to Doctor Who companions in many, many years –

NL She really grew on me. I was worried at first; I think everyone was.

LP But the latest companions – the “Impossible Girl”, the “Girl Who Waited” – they’re not real people; they’re stories that happened to the Doctor. They’re not characters in their own right. And the other thing Moffat has done is get rid of having the companion’s family, unlike Russell T Davies. Both Clara [played by Jenna Coleman] and Karen Gillan’s character [Amy] have no family whatsoever, functionally, whereas the Tylers were brilliant. Martha’s family were great, and Donna’s strange, difficult relationship with her mum . . .

HL Mickey. I love Mickey. When he turns up and gets stuck in a wheelie-bin . . .

LP The hapless boyfriend was fantastic.

HL Doesn’t it come down to the different ways they see Doctor Who? Russell T Dav­ies saw himself as the companion. I sense Steven Moffat sees himself as the Doctor, rescuing ladies . . .

LP Well, he has written a grumpy, middle-aged Scottish man as the new Doctor. But the reason you can talk about Doctor Who for ages is that it functions now in the way that sagas and myths used to function. You have to start talking about Doctor Who, and a few other cultural artefacts, like Star Trek, in the same way. The story has been told by so many people; the canon and the history are so long that they are bigger than any one writer, than any one fan.

NL There’s something Homeric about it. It’s been transmitted from generation to generation for 50 years. People think about themselves as Doctor Who or as the assistant.

HL If you could be a companion, which one would you be?

LP Captain Jack. Sorry, I didn’t have to think about that.

HL Are you on board with being Captain Jack in Torchwood as well, where you have to be sealed in a box and then die every two seconds for 2,000 years?

LP I would get to snog Spike from Buffy, which would make it all better.

NL I think . . . who was the one who was the savage girl, who wore the leather bikini, who said, “Shall I kill him now, Doctor” and he said, “Well, maybe not actually.”

HL A companion from the famous “one for the dads” era of the Seventies, I think.

NL No, I liked the boldness of her character!

LP Oh, that’s why you can’t remember her name . . . Her name was Leela. 

The new series of “Doctor Who” starts on BBC1, Saturday 23 August (7.50pm)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.