Phil Gladwin on The Sarah Jane Adventures

The latest Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is currently wowing the kids on Children’s BBC every Monday – currently BBC One viewers are in the middle of the third story of the season, “Warriors of Kudlak”, penned by Phil Gladwin, who’s an enormously experienced screenwriter. If it’s a career you’re interested in getting into, you might find his blog, makes interesting reading – at the moment he’s running a competition to give away three copies of screenwriting software Final Draft. Phil also produces a downloadable How To Write a Screenplay package that people can buy from another part of the site.

Here he tells us about his first experience of writing for the Whoniverse.

What other shows have you written for during your career?

“To my own surprise I seem to have specialised in crime shows - I was a staff writer on The Bill for a couple of years a while back, and have developed quite a number of different crime shows that have never quite seen the light of day (I've got a very high adrenaline movie script about the armed police in London with top production company attached if anyone's interested in donating large amounts of venture capital!). Recently I did a couple of episodes of Lynda La Plante's Trial & Retribution, and found it to be a perfect match for my rather dark sensibility! (Morbid? Moi?) I was on to do an episode of Red Cap before the show folded - another high adrenaline show, so a theme definitely emerges. I've also written for Holby, Grange Hill and Crossroads in my time. I spent quite a few years as a script editor too, and worked on Casualty, a show about Edwardian nannies called Berkeley Square, and even one series of Bugs back in 1996 I think.”

How did you get involved in writing for The Sarah Jane Adventures?

“[Producer] Matt Bouche called me direct and asked me to come up with a few ideas. I'd worked with Matt before - we'd talked about a couple of shows that never got made - one was going to be a series of dramatisations of MR James ghost stories, and another was a single drama about a contract killer having a weird experience with a ghost from his past, and so I guess when Matt was given Sarah Jane and had to find writers he remembered all this.”

Did Russell T Davies or the other producers give you any keywords to think of in terms of the tone of the series, guidelines to follow, or pitfalls to avoid?

“Not really. Obviously I knew - and admired - the work that had been going on with Doctor Who, so I did understand the narrative ball park, but I think in the early months we were all trying to pin down the tone, so it was very much a process of me submitting ideas, or treatments, them rejecting them, and me alternating between tearing out my hair and being guided by the response.”

What was the starting point for your script - the seed of the idea?

“I blame Kate Bush. Seeing her video for ‘Cloudbusting’ last autumn reminded me of a long held interest in the relationship between the American psychotherapist/inventor/visonary/eccentric Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter. I went quite a long way down the line of developing an idea for Sarah Jane based on an inventor who inadvertently attracted the attention of aliens, but in the end Russell decided that had to go. The character Lance is a very distant remnant of that son character, and the making rain scene on the hillside is a direct tribute to the video.”

How long did it take to write the story, and how many drafts did it go through? Did it evolve very much?

“The script took from September to May. I think we got to the aliens in the Laser Quest by December. I had a very enjoyable research day with my two daughters and their friends in the laser tag in Hastings in the early New Year, and then it was a matter of battling to get the story laid out in the right order in the remaining months. It evolved so much!”

Congratulations for getting Lis Sladen to say "it's the nuts!" Are you up on kids' street slang, or did that take a bit of research?

“Ha! The thing about Lis is her fantastic ability to invest even the most nonsensical techno-babble with passion and credibility, so I'm sure that wasn't hard for her! It was actually a phrase a friend of mine used to use a long time ago, and I just thought it was funny and hoped it was still credible. But I do always run these things past my daughters, who are very happy to play the Maria role and get me to agree to never ever say that sort of thing again if I'm wrong.”

Were there any "babies" you had to kill - ideas you loved that you just couldn't fit into the finished script?

“Oh, where do I start? In nine months I had to kill so many ideas. But I'm sure some of them will see the light of day elsewhere some day.”

Did you attend the readthrough or any of the filming? If so, what was the highlight of what you saw?

“Actually, no I always avoid the filming - it's far less glamorous than it seems, and I do think it's much better to let the director get on with what he's good at without having to bat off any daft suggestions from me. As far as readthroughs go, I'll treasure Gareth Roberts stepping in for a missing actor and playing a very fruity - and slightly suggestive - Mr Smith, to loud appreciation from the team!”

Interview by Ian Berriman