Producer Matt Strevens Talks An Adventure In Space And Time

There's an on-set report on An Adventure In Space And Time in the new issue of SFX, on sale Wednesday. As an online bonus, here's the quotable goodness we didn't get to use from producer Matt Strevens ...

You’re telling the story of the birth of Doctor Who but what’s the focus of the drama?

It really is William Hartnell’s story. It’s the story of the first Doctor and his journey. He becomes a kind of Willy Loman character, so there is that wonderful human condition/everyman thing. We can all relate to it being either our dad or us. We’re all replaceable in life – if anyone thinks they’re not then they’re mistaken. You have your day and then it’s time to move on. It’s a great universal story, so what we hope is that if you don’t really care about Doctor Who , if you’re not a Doctor Who fan, in the way that you may not have cared about rowing but you still loved watching Bert And Dickie , this is the same thing. We hope that it’s a universal story about a man’s journey, towards the end of his life, in a Death Of A Salesman kind of way. In that way we hope we get a really broad audience. But we’ve got lots of lovely things in for real fans, lots of little nods.

How faithful have you been to the historical facts?

What we’ve had to do for dramatic purposes is amalgamate a lot of people. In Delia Derbyshire we’ve combined a number of characters – although she ran the Radiophonic Workshop there was Ron Grainer who composed the music and then there was Brian Hodgson who was the guy who brought in his mother’s house keys and ran them up and down the back of a piano to create the TARDIS sound. We kind of amalgamated certain details. The original Doctor Who was a committee commission – there were so many people involved that we couldn’t possibly dramatise so we’ve condensed it all down to a few key characters, and then made Sydney Newman the driving force. He was the guy who brought the idea of doing a science fiction show, and he was an ideas man.

We know this is a passion project for Mark Gatiss…

Mark’s had the idea to do this for 15 or 20 years. He even did a spoof sketch where he played Sydney Newman. For years he’s been a huge fan, and then he started researching, so he’s had primary source interviews with everybody who’s still alive that you can get hold of. Tons and tons of documentation – the first script that he delivered had everything in it. We’ve had to rationalise it and pare it back and pare it back, but a lot of detail in the script comes from one on one first hand interviews with surviving people. And then at our readthrough we were very lucky to have Mark Eden who played Marco Polo, Bill Russell who played Ian Chesterton and Carole Ann Ford, who played Susan – and they’re in it, as well. Bill Russell plays Harry, who’s an old school BBC commissionaire, dressed in the pseudo-military uniform they used to wear, going "You can’t come in here without a pass, sir!" The first time we meet Sydney Newman is with William Russell. Carole Ann is blink and you’ll miss it. We didn’t want to be a bit cheesey and do an obvious cameo, so there’s a lovely scene in a 1960s street where the camera pans into a house window and a 1960s family is sitting around the telly watching Doctor Who … As we pan through a grandmother comes out and goes "David! Martin! It’s time for your tea! And that show you like’s on!" And she beckons them in, and you just catch a moment of her - it’s Carole Ann Ford dressed as an old lady. It’s just a little taste of her. And Mark Eden, who was Marco Polo, so lost forever, is playing the head of the BBC, Donald Baverstock.

How did the old members of the team feel when they saw their past being recreated like this?

It was quite emotional at the readthrough. We went around the table, as you normally do on a table read – “Hi,I’m so and so and I’m playing such and such,” - and when it came to "I’m William Russell and I’m playing Harry" and "I’m Carole Ann Ford and I’m playing Joyce" the whole room just cheered. It really was quite moving. I think it was quite weird for the actors playing them, because on one hand it’s great to meet the person you’re playing and on the other hand it’s actually incredibly daunting, and a bit scary. So it was a two-edged kind of thing, especially for the wonderful Sacha, who’s playing Waris Hussein, because Waris is still very vibrant and working and amazing for his age – well, he’s not that old, he’s 75, but you’d think he was 55. He’s had quite a few meetings with him, and I think that was really useful to get the intonation of Waris’ voice, but also quite daunting for him because he feels a great responsibility, because Waris is still very much with us. It’s been lovely to be able to include a couple of cast members from the first ever episode. I think that really means that it becomes slightly timeless.

Are you a Who fan yourself?

I grew up watching it. My Doctor was Tom Baker and then Peter Davison. I’m a huge Peter Davison fan. I remember the 20 th anniversary being "The Five Doctors" and Richard Hurndall playing the part of the original. And I’m a fan of the reboot as well. I really love what Russell and now Steven have done with it. I was doing Misfits so I quite like that kind of science fiction/fantasy thing anyway. When I was asked to do this it was wonderful, a dream come true, but I never thought we’d be able to do it on this scale. What we’ve managed to do, given that it is a tight budget – budgets always are these days – is create a cinematic experience. We’re really trying for it to punch slightly above its weight. What we really wanted to do was get a sense of the ‘60s, so we are looking at the grade of things like The Ladykillers . We want to bring out that Technicolor 60s whereas The Hour has a very 50s sepia look and The Girl had a very Hollywood bubblegum look, the blues and the pinks. We’re going for the mauves and the greens, the green corduroy suits, those kind of reds and greens, Routemaster bus interior, things that pop. We really wanted to get a sense of cinema and we’ve been blessed to get Terry McDonough who most recently has been having a big career in America doing Breaking Bad and Hell On Wheels and those kind of things. He’s brought a real cinematic flair to it. John Pardue is our director of photography and John lit The Girl with Toby Jones.

What does David Bradley bring to the part of William Hartnell?

He’s so amazingly, beautifully talented. What he’s able to do is take Bill from this quite irascible character, who is quite grumpy and a bit like the Doctor that you see, and show the way it changes him. And his changing relationship we play through his granddaughter, who’s called Judy. We show how in fact he did become Pied Piper-ish, and felt a real duty to the children, so when he was out in real life kids would follow him and the Doctor became this huge character. David has the range – he’s heartbreaking. You take this grumpy actor who’s not being recognised properly, he feels he’s been typecast as army types… If you look back at Brighton Rock or This Sporting Life he’s a wonderful film actor but he’d got stuck in a rut, and he was very snippy about taking the role of the Doctor, because it was perceived as children’s television. But by the end he didn’t want to go. David is just magical as that.

Has Jessica Carney, William Hartnell’s granddaughter, been involved?

Very much so. All through the script, when Bill talks he calls his wife and his granddaughter love – “Alright, love, I’ll be home in a minute,” - and she called us and said he never called anybody love, he called everybody darling, he was that theatrical even at home. So little details like that we’ve managed to bring into the script. She has the original astrakhan hat and the original emerald ring, so she brought those to set – we’re not using them because they’re too precious!

Nick Setchfield

An Adventure In Space And Time will be on BBC Two on November 21st at 9 pm

Correction: a glitch crept into our feature in SFX 242, where we incorrectly state Matt Strevens is the director of An Adventure In Space And Time . He's the producer, of course - Terry McDonough is the director. Our brains were clearly nibbled by Zarbi.