badgering Davies

Books There have been few books greeted with so much anticipation in Doctor Who fan circles than The Writer’s Tale. A record of Russell T Davies’s email correspondence with friend and journalist Benjamin Cook during the writing and production of the fourth season of the revived series, it was rumoured that for the first time we, the royal ‘we’ meaning ‘we’ fans as opposed to the ‘not we’ meaning everyone else, would hear the gossip and secrets that under normal circumstances don’t come to light until years later during bitter interchanges in Doctor Who Magazine (more commonly DWM) when half the people involved are dead. Now that it has finally been published, none of us have truly been prepared for how honest and apparently uncensored the book is, and though much swearing and scandal have apparently been removed (presumably for legal reasons) at times it’s as though the reader has hacked into the writer/producer’s email account and is working their way through Davies’s ‘sent items’. It goes without saying that if you’re fan of the new series, it may be quite some time before we’re treated to such a detailed account of production, barring the DWM Special by historian Andrew Pixley.

I’d argue however that non-fans or people who simply watch the show on broadcast will find this equally entertaining, since away from the fannish trivia and scripting anecdotes it’s also a fractured biography of a very complex individual which explains why he’s walking away from his dream job at the end of next year. It seems to be killing him. Russell T Davies is arguably the most prominent producer and writer in the series history, and in an age when backstage creatives are often as famous as those who appear on screen, Davies is as likely to be interviewed just before a new series as the stars. The impression the viewer gets from his publicity appearances is of a bouncy extrovert with bags of energy, always smiling and that’s backed up by his contributions to the making of tv series Doctor Who Confidential and monthly column in DWM. Though the book doesn’t contradict that view, it fleshes out his personality, showing that even though in public he’s forever making grandiose claims about being a screenwriter who knows what he’s doing, in private like every writer he’s wracked with unsurety about his craft and abilities, never feeling as though he’s got things quite right, or that he’s got enough time.

He’s similar to 70s script editor Douglas Adams (who was writing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at the same time) in that respect – forever in here, Davies frets about deadlines, often letting them whoosh past him to the point that often what’s being filmed is, if not quite a first draft (he’s forever polishing), certainly something which is into the computer one day and at a script reading the next. There are times when he admits he simply can’t get a plot point straight even as the episode enters production even to the point of being phoned from the set by the director asking for guidance on how to interpret what’s been written. It’s that brutal frankness which is endearing but also potentially frustrating because his work is potentially suffering because despite his big ideas, he's constantly interrupted by of all of the other things he has to do each day; in one entry he describes a typical twenty-four hours and the list is frightening. It’s these longer entries which are the real draw for the ‘not we’, as celebrity gossip (Kylie! Catherine! Billie!) and writing mechanics give way to confessionals on how the process of publicity and the circus that surrounds the series is exasperating him and the more negative aspects of his persona come to the fore, snapping at friends, autopilot at launch parties, walking around Cardiff bay in the middle of the night wondering how he’s going to get the work done.

Which is why Ben Cook’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s the reader’s way into Davies’s life, like the Doctor exploring an alien world, somehow managing to ask just the right questions to trigger a revelation or anecdote. They’ve clearly already built a friendship and rapport in the preceding few years (or longer – Doctor Who fans have their inner circle just like any sub-culture), so the writer is already relaxed, but there are times when Cook is almost badgering Davies until he explains himself properly on a given topic. It helps that they both have the same field of reference – you couldn’t imagine another journalist to get Davies to write so candidly (in a chapter called ‘Bastards’ – and this in a book about a family series!) about helping other members of the production team come to terms with the online fan reaction to their work (offering sympathy to them on the phone for hours) whilst at the same time noticing his own thoughtlessness in relation to dumping the script of an old friend even though they’d been working on it for a year, agonising over what that says about him.

At just over five hundred pages this might seem like a intimidating read, but large sections are filled with first drafts and revisions of three of his episodes as well as pertinent photographs, publicity shots and candids sometimes showing the programme makers at play. It’s well designed by former DWM editor Clayton Hickman, text even punctuated here and there by Davies’s own comic illustrations of rejected story ideas and moments from life. It’s not all Davies either; exchanges with the likes of designers and incoming producer Steven Moffat are included too as they desperately try not to tell each other too much about their stories whilst simultaneously making sure their not repeating themselves. You’ll notice that I’ve not talked much about the content of the book and that’s quite deliberate. The Writer’s Tale is best savoured with all of the surprises intact, the casting replacements, the changes in story and who said what to whom about what and whom and when. In other words, no spoilers. The book does climax with some hints of what’s to come in the upcoming Christmas special and like the best stories there is a surprise ending.

But like I said, no spoilers.

[The book has its own marvellous website, which includes extracts as well as .pdfs of all of the scripts written by Davies.]

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