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Writing Sarah Jane

Good things come in threes, so it seems only fitting that we currently have on UK TV a trio of shows from the Whoniverse. The Sarah Jane Adventures is the CBBC version, debuting on New Year’s Day 2007 and now into its third season, consistently getting the best viewing figures of any children’s show in Britain. Head writer and co-producer on the series is the incredibly enthusiastic Phil Ford, and SFX interviewed him for the the SFX Review Of The Decade – on sale now (it includes a 24-page section dedicated to Doctor Who, including an all-new interview with Russell T Davies). Here's just a part of that Phil Ford interview for you…

If Doctor Who had never existed, would a show like Sarah Jane Adventures ever have been commissioned?
“Sarah Jane obviously owes a lot of its success to Doctor Who. It would be mad to say otherwise. To be honest, the idea of a show for kids that stars a woman who’s in her late ’50s is unlikely ever to have been commissioned. A show that featured a younger Sarah Jane might have been, and it would have been a success if it had had the same quality of writing and production crew.”

How did you become head writer on The Sarah Jane Adventures?

“When I started out writing for TV back in the mid-’90s, this is what I always wanted to do, fantasy. When I started writing for telly back in ’95, this is what I wanted to do. But the powers-that-be then said, ‘Oh, we don’t do that on British television at all.’ Which they didn’t at the time. Though bizarrely the first idea I ever sold was a Victorian paranormal series, which never got made.

“It wasn’t until Doctor Who kicked off that they realised, ‘Oh, we can do this.’ They always said, ‘We can’t do it because we don’t have the money to do it. We can’t do it like the Americans.’ Actually, I think there was a fair bit of snobbishness – that was the real reason.

“I mean, the first thing I did was bloody Coronation Street, and how much further away from fantasy could you get? Well, actually, that’s not quite true. The first thing I did was Taggart, but then Coronation Street for five years. I always say that the reason I got sacked from Coronation Street was because I wanted to put aliens in it.

“And, of course, Russell worked on Coronation Street as well. Although Russell left just before I got there, I had met him before at various dos and stuff, so I did know him. Then after I finished on Coronation Street I did New Captain Scarlet for Gerry Anderson. When Doctor Who started I went to the screening ‘Parting Of The Ways’ at BAFTA, and I ran into Russell. Russell knew Scarlet and thought it was brilliant, and so did [Doctor Who producer] Julie Gardner. So really it was then that they said let’s do something together.

“Then I got the call. Julie rang up and said, ‘We’re doing this series but it’s all a bit hush-hush – it’s a spin-off, but we can’t tell you what it is.’ Though I had an inkling. Then after they’d done the pilot, I had another phone call – ‘Would you like to come in?’

“The first thing I did for them was ‘Eye Of The Gorgon’. At that point Russell was due to do the first series finale, but because of his commitments to Doctor Who he couldn’t. So they asked me if I’d do the series finale, which was great.”

So who came up with the story for “The Lost Boy”? You or Russell?

“I had a meeting with Russell, and Russell said, ‘ I have the first 15 minutes in my head, but after that I haven’t a clue!’ Which is great because the beginning is always the hardest part. So it was great to take it from there. But all the way through that first season, he’d known that Mr Smith had agenda, so that came from Russell as well.

“I think ‘The Lost Boy’ is a very brave story to do in the way that we did it. That scene at the start where Luke is taken away – that could have been right out of an adult drama. It was just so strong.”

When did you become head writer of the show?
“With season two. I was in a garden centre having lunch, when I got a phone call, and it was Julie Gardner saying, ‘We’d quite like you to come back and work on the series, and we’d like to invite you back as head writer. And if you’d like to think about it we’d like you to come on board as co-producer as well.’ And I thought about it for about a second…
“So, yeah, it was with the second series. And it’s just been great fun because I get involved with the scripts at every level. And I just love the show. When ‘Eye of the Gorgon’ went out, I sat down and watched it, and thought, ‘This is the first show I’ve written that’s exactly the way that I meant it to be.’ You realise that the people down in Cardiff have got such a love for what they do. We’re always, like every other show, battling against reduced budgets. You kinda think, ‘The show’s successful, they’ll give you more money,’ but the reality of making TV these days is they’re always cutting the budgets. Understandably, it happens on all shows. But the team there is still able to pull it out and make great-looking shows.

“Everybody gets it, down in Cardiff. It’s just a fantastic team. And we have such a marvellous cast. The CG FX that they do down there are amazing for the resources that they have to work with. Every episode I’m just blown away by.”

Tonally, how do you differentiate the scripts from the kind of stories that would be written for Doctor Who?
“It’s a difficult one actually. It’s more of an ensemble show than Doctor Who. He does have his companion, but effectively it’s the Doctor who runs the show. Sarah Jane has developed into more of an ensemble thing. Clyde, Luke, Rani – they all have equal standing alongside Sarah Jane. And obviously, we’re not able to kill people in Sarah Jane, so that makes it different from Doctor Who. But at the same time we’ve done some quite dark, scary stories. One of the great things I’ve heard said about the show is – which thrills me no end – is that it’s like old Doctor Who.

“I just think that Sarah Jane is an opportunity for us to grasp in some way a different kind of story that Doctor wouldn’t be able to handle. It’s always very difficult, when you start talking about the subliminal building blocks of a show. I certainly never really think about them consciously. You just know how you’re going to write it. Because Russell’s template for the show when it was first conceived was so strong, you just knew what the show was.”