THE WRITER'S TALE (we're half way) - Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook


I realise, as I lie here with this book in my cracked and gnarled hands and imagine nubile man slaves massaging my shoulders...mmm...grape, er, thanks...Tovey, that I'm half way through The Writer's Tale. Russell's just decided to activate his official BBC email as he tries to go on holiday and discovered he has 24,000 emails waiting for him. "Delete" he decides and I nod as I remember muttering that to myself when a spam email pinged into my account yesterday claiming they'd found my CV on jobsdontexist.bollocks.com and were offering me the CEO's position at a fictitious conglomerate. Delete indeed. He's probably wiped out masses of fawning messages, offers of viagra, botox and various unctions and pills to turn you into a rabid sex machine, and, no doubt, requests from loads of writers in embryo all hoping he can give them a job or even look at their manuscripts. Sounds like an average day to me.

It must be galling when that Moffat fella goes and grabs all the snazzy awards for his own episodes.


Russell is, it seems, reluctantly trapped on a voyage (...of the damned, ha, ha!) where reality is an out of focus landscape and all he can cope with (or can't) is how the hell he's going to write the script for Partners In Crime in time for the filming block. There are signs he's had enough of being the driver behind the wheel of the whole Who machine. The Rewriter's Tale and Fire And Brimstone are further chapters in the saga of Russell and Ben's email conversations and, indeed, Russell is in the shit. He tries re-writing James Moran's Pompeii script on holiday and then has to cancel the holiday out of sheer panic that Partners is late. Whilst recording blocks are rearranged to give him more time to deliver the script, the Xmas special is in production, location recees in Rome are already underway, Catherine Tate agrees to be Donna (Ben mentions the internet melting - bloody hell, I remember that day), his idea for J.K. Rowling to be the star of the Xmas Special in 2008 is given the thumbs down by David Tennant, and he offers Steven Moffat the Big Chair. Fortunately he does have time to discuss re-writes. All the scripts are re-written by him except for the Moffat, Chris Chibnall, Stephen Greenhorn and Matt Graham ones. It must be galling when that Moffat fella goes and grabs all the snazzy awards for his own episodes. Russell can at least take comfort in the fact that he has the Dennis Potter BAFTA. So who, in the end, is the real author? Does it upset the other writers if they see their original script turned inside out and end up bearing little resemblance to the first draft? Is this why some writers haven't come back to the show?

Let's get back to re-writes. In The Rewriter's Tale he expands on his methodology:
"Rewriting? I write the final draft of almost all scripts...and that draft becomes the Shooting Script. I might change at least 30%, often 60% and sometimes almost 100%. I go over every line of dialogue, either adding new stuff or refining what's there, sometimes that means enhancing a line that the original writer hasn't realised is good. I'll bring out themes, punch up moments, add signature dialogue, clarify stage directions and make cuts. To every single scene, if need be. Usually the basic shape remains intact but sometimes I'll invent brand new characters and subplots...while at the same time remaining faithful to the original writer. I'll even impersonate them.

...I'm sure some of them think of it as vandalism. Equally, to be fair, others are very grateful. But my job is to get the Best Possible Script on screen, even if that means stampeding over someone. "

Finally, something I've been hoping will happen in the book, in Fire And Brimstone - a compare and contrast section of the Pompeii script with the Moran original followed by the Davies re-write.
As he himself says, no one realises how much of Human Nature/Family Of Blood was actually written by him. And The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Increasingly, Russell's vision and tone is stamped all over the scripts. Apparently, it's also contractual that when you sign up to write a script that you agree to it being reshaped by Russell (apparently Julie gets the short end of the straw and has to tell the writers, poor love). James Moran pops in with his view on how Russell changed the Pompeii script and he's delighted with the changes (especially the water pistol gag). Finally, something I've been hoping will happen in the book, in Fire And Brimstone - a compare and contrast section of the Pompeii script with the Moran original followed by the Davies re-write. It's an insight into how the Davies influence works its wonders, or horrors if you're that way inclined, on an existing piece of work. The script is tightened, trademark Russell humour appears and it moves faster. That's the key. The speed of his writing does influence the actual creation of the episode. Many of the ming-mongs out there complain that the episodes move too quickly these days...well, it's there at script stage, right from the beginning. It gets even faster in the edit. Russell bemoans the quality of the rough edit of Voyage Of The Damned and it gets cut down more and more:
"A great sense of dismay at watching the disaster movie format fight the Doctor Who format. Yes, the very thing that I worried about as I wrote it. Do you remember, at the end, I was really proud that I'd combined them? The funny thing is - and I learn this lession every time, yet forget it - if a fault is fundamental, any problem-solving is only papering over the cracks. The cracks always show. The fault persists. They always do. The disaster movie fights the essential nature of the Doctor, because he becomes just Any Old Survivor..."
He's a big gay control freak, not only is he stamping all over the scripts and the edits, taking notes in the read-throughs, but he's also approving video covers, audio scripts, novel synopses...He is Doctor Who! It truly makes you appreciate why the series has had such a big success. It's because very little gets past the man in the Big Chair, thank God. And when it does, he's not happy. And he fixes it.



On the subject of tone, there's an interesting moment where Russell admits that they did get that wrong on the first series of Torchwood. That to me indicates that he doesn't need the combined screeching of internet ming mongs telling him he's misjudged something. He's happy to admit it whilst he and Ben dissect the first series of Skins, where the trailers for that series promise a show of a certain kind and yet the transmitted episodes bear little resemblance to the promotions. Bryan Elsley, the co-creator of Skins seems to have put the fear of God into Russell with his Sunday Times interview in which Elsley declared that they (meaning him, Russell and others of his generation) will be redundant as new forms of storytelling emerge to replace the ones we love and and cherish today. I felt very old reading that.
...there is much discussion about lovely Russell Tovey ("I think I'd make him the Eleventh Doctor" - cue media frenzy and Tovey's agent rubbing his hands in glee)
By the middle of Structure And Cosmetics, Russell has once again overcome his prevarications and has plunged head-long into the script for Partners In Crime. Ben asks him about starting a narrative and at what point the story should begin to which Russell responds by referring to how they eventually sorted out the opening episode of Queer As Folk, letting us in on the fact that there was in fact a completely lost original opening to the series. He's very much in favour of what Nicola Shindler advised him back in the day: "Cut it...Get on with it" and start with the story and its context.

In the whirlwind of emails and script extracts over those three chapters there is much discussion about Russell Tovey ("I think I'd make him the Eleventh Doctor" - cue media frenzy and Tovey's agent rubbing his hands in glee), the RSC jumping the gun on announcing Tennant as Hamlet, James Marsters arse (I see a theme developing here) and an empire building Julie Gardner as she suggests shooting the 2009 Easter special in two halves!

What's that sound? Ah, that's Russell banging his head against the wall at Gardner's suggestion of winging it through the four specials for 2009. I can hear her cackling laughter from here. And on the heels of that bombshell, he takes comfort in the fact that he's going to reveal Rose Tyler's return as a surprise for the end of Partners In Crime. The extracts also demonstrate what a lean piece of writing it is and it's all been hiding in his head since the start of the book when Donna was actually a woman called Penny. I kid you not.

More tomorrow! Yes? No? Take a chill pil

Comments
2 Responses to “THE WRITER'S TALE (we're half way) - Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook”
  1. Nick says:

    "He's happy to admit it whilst he and Ben dissect the first series of Skins, where the trailers for that series promise a show of a certain kind and yet the transmitted episodes bear little resemblance to the promotions."

    I haven't read the book, so don't know what their conclusion is, but IMO, this was intentional on the part of the producers of Skins - they hooked the viewers in with 'it's sex and drugs and teenagers', but then twisted that around .

  2. FRANK says:

    Thanks, Nick.

    In the book, it's clear they were disappointed with the first series of Skins but, importantly, could see what Bryan Elsley was trying to do with the tone of it.

    I haven't read all of the book but I have glanced forward and apparently Skins series two gets a big thumbs up from them both and they see it as an example of how a show might need some time to bed in and get its tone spot on. And in the context of Torchwood I think that was the point they were making too.

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