Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook interview
“I am proud to say that I am a ming-mong,” Benjamin Cook grins, much to the amusement of the man sitting next to him.
“I’m trying to clamp down on [that word],” interrupts Russell T Davies, “because I don’t like it.”
“Whereas I disagree with Russell completely on that,” Benjamin counters, “and will try to get ‘ming-mong’ into every conversation, because it’s a wonderful word. I am a ming-mong!”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in early October and I’m in London, with Benjamin Cook (Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine journalist) and Russell T Davies (executive producer of Doctor Who, creator of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures), who have just begun a tour of the UK. They’re promoting The Writer’s Tale, their new Doctor Who book, which has already been serialised in The Times (and earned them a coveted spot on BBC Breakfast).
Now, though, they have three busy days of book signings and press interviews ahead of them. Unreality SF has been granted a half-hour slot in their packed schedule, and as we wander the streets of London looking for somewhere for a sandwich and a chat, Benjamin explains that they’ve spent the morning recording interviews for various radio stations, including an appearance on The Steve Wright Show. (“I met Suzi Quatro!” interjects an excited Russell, between puffs of his cigarette.) Failing miserably to find a quiet restaurant, we settle in the foyer of a BBC building to discuss the book.
“The Writer’s Tale is a year-long email correspondence between me and Russell,” Benjamin explains, “from February 2007 to March 2008. In that period, barely a day went past without us exchanging emails – sometimes, there were several emails a day – and it looks at the writing process on Doctor Who Series Four: everything from Voyage of the Damned right through to Journey’s End. It gets right inside Russell T Davies’s head.”
It’s also quite unlike any other Doctor Who book published. The format, the level of access, the frankness and honesty – there’s never really been anything similar to this before.
“I’ve never seen a book like it,” Russell agrees, “and I’ve always wanted to. As a writer, you get books of finished scripts, [but] this actually has the scripts being written day-by-day live. It’s a live creation of the fiction, which really shows you what writing something is like, as opposed to when everything’s tidied up.
“I’ve been asked to write books before about writing,” he continues. “Channel 4 asked me to write one after Queer as Folk. I never wanted to do that, because I think it would’ve been very formal. I think I would’ve lied, actually. I think I would’ve formalised the process, and been drier about it. There are a lot of books like that, with chapter headings and lessons and three-point plans, and stuff like that, and I disagree with all that. I don’t think that’s what writing is like. It’s sitting there, at four in the morning, wrestling with an idea. It’s about your thoughts, and your ideas, and it’s about your whole life, so once Ben tapped into that, and once we both realised where it was going, we thought it was something properly unique. I’m not just selling it, saying that; I really believe that.”
“It puts Doctor Who in context as well,” adds Benjamin, “which I think a lot of books don’t. This is the Doctor Who book that, a lot of the time, isn’t about Doctor Who at all. So it puts it into the context of not just what’s going on in Russell’s life, but what else is on TV – we look at shows like Skins, which we talk a lot about, but other shows too – just to give it a bit of context.”
For budding scriptwriters, the book is a goldmine of advice and empathy, offering an unparalleled and unprecedented look at the creative process. I wonder whether the book was always intended to work as a resource for younger writers, or if that evolved as the correspondence continued.
“I wanted it to be more a book about writing than a book about Doctor Who,” Benjamin reveals. “Inevitably, it became very Doctor Who-heavy because it was the most amazing year behind the scenes on Doctor Who imaginable. We started it at just the right time: just a few weeks before Kylie got involved, two weeks before Catherine Tate signed up for a full series. So it became about Doctor Who, but I wanted to find out how to write.”
Perhaps Benjamin would be interested in writing scripts of his own one day? “Yeah!” he responds, without hesitation. “That’s one of the reasons I started this. It was as much a personal thing as anything else, because I genuinely wanted to know how to write, to see if it could be taught. And I’m yet to [write a script]. And I keep meaning to. It’s one of those things… There are all these people who put off writing scripts, and put if off, and put it off, and put it off, and then realise that they’re, I dunno, 40 and married with kids, and they’re an investment banker. So I hope that’s not me, but I’d love to write a script.”
“It is part of where the book came from,” adds Russell, “cos that’s a conversation we’d been having for much longer than that: When are you gonna write something?”
“You’re right, actually,” Benjamin admits, “and I don’t think we’ve ever said that in any of the interviews we’ve done. That’s why the book started. I think I kind of read back the beginning of the book, and it seems to start very randomly. It’s like, ‘Hello, I’d like to do a book!’, and actually that’s not quite how it happened. It was ‘I’d like to ask you about scripts, and it could be a magazine article’. But yeah, one day—”
“I keep nagging,” interrupts Russell, smiling. “Telling him to get on with it.”
“I know, I know!” Benjamin replies. “But now, this is going to be in print! This is going to be out there, on the web! I’m stating my future on this site!”
“Good,” Russell says definitively. “You’ve got a deadline now!”
What, then, would Russell like aspiring writers such as Benjamin to take away from The Writer’s Tale?
“I hope it shows that there’s more to writing that all the formal plans that a lot of media courses and the blogosphere shows you,” Russell replies. “But really, it’s only a lesson in how I write. There is no ‘proper’ way to write, you can do whatever you want. You can literally just make it up as you go along – I just wanted to show the process of ideas. I think, from early reactions from people I know who write – and people I know who want to write – who’ve read it, I think actually they find some consolation in it, in that they sit there desperate and lonely and think I can’t do this, and I think it’s helpful for them to see that they’re not alone.”
How important does Russell think it is to make his line of work more accessible to aspirant scriptwriters? “I think the more you demystify these things, the better,” he contends. “Opening up the creative process is a brilliant thing. And the more you open it up, the more you take the mystique away. You take away the pretence that lofty, remote people write, and you say that actually it’s for everyone.”
And it’s fair to say that the creative process on Doctor Who has been relatively closed-off in the past. The Writer’s Tale reveals, for example, just how extensive Russell’s rewrites of other people’s scripts are. “I had a whole Sunday of people saying… ‘What a brilliant script. Paul Cornell is a genius’,” he writes at one point, talking about Human Nature. “But I’m thinking, if only you knew how much of that I wrote!” Why the secrecy, then?
“It’s only been hidden in the past because it’s not the place to talk about this sort of stuff on Confidential or something like that,” Russell explains. “I mean, I love those Confidentials, but they’re not little documentaries about my life or any other writer’s life, they’re behind-the-scenes shows. So it’s my time, in leaving, to sort of talk about this sort of stuff.”
And it’s great to see the lid finally lifted, because scripts are unquestionably a very important part of the success of Doctor Who. In fact, classic-series writers have said that a good script will always give you a good story, regardless of how weak the sets or effects are. I ask whether Russell thinks that’s still true now – or if it was even true back in the seventies.
“I think you’d have trouble with it now,” he admits. “And that’s not necessarily just a Doctor Who thing – the standards of everything made on television have changed. You wouldn’t get I, Claudius now – and that’s a beautiful, brilliant piece of work – but you simply wouldn’t have that taped in a studio now like that was now.
“It’s an interesting question, actually, because I think the production of television drama gets more and more expensive as it goes on. And it’s now getting so expensive that we’re having to find alternatives – you get stuff like Skins, more guerrilla-type filming processes that are escaping the rising budgets. I think you could very confidently say that budgets are about to plummet now, with the credit crunch and the banks collapsing, everywhere’s going to be very hard-hit. Here, America, everywhere – it’ll be a very creative time, because everyone will have to find different ways to make things for much less money.”
At the start of The Writer’s Tale, Russell is emailing “Invisible Ben” – asking questions about the scripts, investigating the process in depth, but never offering his personal opinions or ideas on what Russell writes. By the end of the book, he’s become an invaluable influence on the scripts; the entire ending of Journey’s End, for example, is changed because of a suggestion Benjamin makes. With this in mind, I ask whether the pair stayed in touch after the book was completed.
“Oh, no contact at all,” deadpans Russell.
“I had to pretend to be good mates with Russell for a year!” Benjamin teases back. “It got too much!”
“He’d go home to Steven Moffat of a night and cry!”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s all about Steven Moffat now!
“Over the course of that year, I think we saw each other in person twice, maybe three times,” Benjamin recalls, more seriously. “And usually, that was Tone Meetings, so it was across a crowded room. But we became good mates, so it became too difficult not to email. It had become sort of a natural process, and I’d like to get a second book out of it.”
“Yeah, I would,” agrees Russell. “512 pages is not enough! Even in the middle of this publicity tour, I had to take Ben to one side and say, ‘Oh my god, guess what happened in the Doctor Who office today!’”
I’m curious about how they’re finding the “publicity tour” so far. One of the most honest and touching passages in The Writer’s Tale comes after the press launch for Voyage of the Damned, which Russell didn’t enjoy, and Benjamin has never done anything like this before, so I wonder whether it’s a bit of a chore.
“I’m sort of loving this,” Russell says, with evident enthusiasm. “The bit I don’t like in the book is the huge publicity event for Voyage of the Damned – 500 people, something like that? – which seems genuinely distorted and wrong. Everyone’s missing the fact that there’s a publicity launch at the beginning of the book, for Series Three, which I have a lovely time at, because it was fine, it was a nice, normal publicity launch. The normal stuff is fine.
“I actually believe in promoting this stuff. I’d love people to read this book, I’m really happy [with it]. It’s the same with Doctor Who publicity – I want people to watch it. And if I’m on a radio station and it makes 12 more people watch, then I’m glad we’ve got those 12.”
“It’s a bit weird, some of it,” Benjamin admits. “We did BBC Breakfast the other day, and you’re excited about doing it and maybe a little nervous, and then it’s just like being in someone’s living room. I didn’t even realise we were on air at first! And it’s the same with the radio shows today, doing Steve Wright and that, they’re so used to it that they just go straight into it, you don’t even realise it’s happening. You have a laugh, you have a chat, and then it’s over. You just have to remember not to swear, and slightly watch what you say, but—”
“You’re sitting there waiting to go on The Steve Wright Show and you’re sitting there next to Suzi Quatro!” Russell jumps in. “But it’s like, that’s a laugh isn’t it? You can’t knock a day where you sat next to Suzi Quatro. Actually, I was sitting there going, ‘Is that Suzi Quatro? Is it?’ I wasn’t quite sure!”
As a journalist, and the author of the hugely popular Inside Story book on Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio plays, Benjamin’s more used to being on my side of the microphone. He’s not in the public eye to the same extent that Russell is, so I’m interested in finding out more about his background.
“The first thing I ever wrote was for Newsround’s Press Packers,” he recalls. “I wrote a report on something to enter a competition, and I won that, so I got to go to the BBC for the day – and work at Radio Times for a day, which now, of course, a decade later, I’m doing regularly, and getting paid for it! – so that sort of sparked my interest.
“And then I just started interviewing actors from Doctor Who who were appearing at my local theatre, Richmond Theatre. People like Sheila Reid, who played Etta in Vengeance of Varos. So some pretty big names, I think you’ll agree!” (At this point, Russell guffaws.) “And I just started sending them in to magazines, and eventually some magazines started publishing them, and it just sort of went on from there.”
“Did you never think of doing Journalism?” asks Russell, genuinely curious.
“As in a course?” Benjamin responds. “No. I was doing it. I started doing this at, like, 15, 16. A lot of people who do Journalism at college or at uni are people who want to get into it, perhaps, and I was already doing it. I’d done that. So I did English Literature, which was a lot more fun, really, for me.”
And what of his interest in Doctor Who? Is that professional, or personal? “I never saw it when it was originally on,” he explains. “And I always say I’m not old enough, but actually, the more I think about it, I am old enough, because I’m 25, so it was still on for a good six or seven years. But I never watched it. I remember seeing the trailer for Survival on TV, and I would’ve been seven, and I thought it looked rubbish.” At this, Russell chuckles again.
“I did!” Benjamin protests. “I thought it looked rubbish! I didn’t watch! But then I got into it, because in 1993, for the thirtieth anniversary, there was a repeat season. They showed a repeat of Planet of the Daleks, Episode Three of which only exists in black and white. They showed, prime time, eight o’clock, BBC One, a black and white episode of Doctor Who from the seventies. Which is insane. And I thought, this is a show that my dad used to watch, so I gave it a go, got into it and loved it. The Green Death was the next one, then Pyramids of Mars, and now, I love it, I love Doctor Who.
“I don’t watch the old series very often, I haven’t seen an episode from the old series for a long, long time. But all the new ones, I love.” After a pause, he smiles, and adds: “Especially the ones that Russell has written. Because you’re sat right next to me.”
Given how young he is, it’s possible that other fans of Doctor Who might react to Benjamin’s career with jealousy. There are, no doubt, fans of the classic series who are twice his age, and have always dreamed of having the behind-the-scenes access that he has on a regular basis.
“I try not to involve myself too much in fandom,” he says. “Because it scares me a little bit, although I’m sure they’re all very lovely people individually, and I’m not sure what I’d get out of it. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to presume that they were bitter or jealous.”
No hatemail, then? “I’ve only had one very angry letter from somebody after I’d interviewed an actor called Clive Swift. And it was an interview that didn’t go well. And it was somebody who was very cross with the way I’d handled this ‘superstar’, as they called him, and criticised me for having appeared in the previous issue – and this is a direct quote – ‘draped over Kylie Minogue like some sort of rubbery man. Benjamin Cook, who wasn’t even alive when Peter Davison strode this earth as TV’s Doctor Who—’”
“You are a bit rubbery in that photo, though,” Russell grins.
“I am not rubbery at all!” Benjamin retorts, indignantly. “I just didn’t know what to do with my hands! As you wouldn’t, when you’re in a photo with Kylie Minogue!”
“Mine would’ve gone for the Dalek,” Russell advises, between roars of laughter.
“Well, mine did! But if you look at the photo, it’s like there’s one too many hands! And also, it looks like I’m slightly thrusting towards her, which is what bothers me most about that photo. My mum likes it, though; she’s got it on the mantelpiece at home, and she shows it to people whenever they come round!”
One section of The Writer’s Tale which has already caused waves in fandom sees Russell reveal how damaging internet criticism can be to writers. “[Helen Raynor] was, literally, shaking,” he writes, of the Daleks in Manhattan writer’s visit to DoctorWhoForum.com. “Like she’d been physically assaulted… That bastard internet voice gets into writers’ heads and destabilises them massively.” At the same time, though, Russell’s written a monthly column in Doctor Who Magazine for years, and has talked several times about the importance of the fans’ ongoing support.
“I think the great sadness about fandom is that it’s a fantastic and constructive and passionate and loving thing, but there are 200 loud voices – I mean, insane, loud, voices – who dominate the entire conversation,” he considers. “When you go on Steve Wright, and they talk to us about fandom, that’s the ones they mean. And any broadsheet journalist who talks about fans is referring to those 200 voices. It’s not fair. I’d much rather have those other 50,000 voices pipe up and go, ‘Enough about them. Shut up, chuck them out.’
“I mean, you don’t have to like the programme unreservedly, but you can talk about it lovingly, constructively, intelligently. But, unfortunately, the loud-mouths get the attention. But not from me, they don’t,” he says, before adding: “And Suzi Quatro just walked past again!”
Regardless of the criticism he’s received from a small number of fans, you can’t argue with the fact that Russell has made Doctor Who into one of the biggest shows on British TV. In the Doctor’s wake, Saturday nights on BBC One are now the home of exciting, colourful family fantasy dramas like Robin Hood and now Merlin, which have adopted the same format as Who.
However, whilst both those series have been incredibly well-received, neither has quite reached the heights of Doctor Who. Can Russell put his finger on what it is that makes Doctor Who so insanely popular?
“I love Merlin,” Russell enthuses. “I love it very much. I think it’s a very exciting programme to watch, I think it’s got potential. And I was watching it this week, thinking, oh my god, wouldn’t it be that bit better if the Doctor was in this episode? And I watch these other shows, like Primeval – and I love these shows – but I’m sat there thinking, I’m really sorry you haven’t got the Doctor.
“[Doctor Who is] very rare in that it’s got an unreal character at its centre,” he continues. “I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s 900 years old.”
“Jackie Stallone?” suggests Benjamin.
“Jackie Stallone. There is her,” Russell concedes. “But it’s immediately fictional. Every other drama, it’s sort of ‘Find the everymen!’. Merlin, for example: they’ve made him an 18 year old boy. A beautiful 18 year old boy, as well.
“But when you put a fictional character at the centre of it, it’s something that opens up the door for everything else. The scripts can be funny and dark and mad and witty and surreal, it can go in any direction. With the Doctor at the centre, all sorts of imaginations can kind of satellite around him. And that is unique, there’s not another show quite like that. You’ve got a fictional character at the heart of the fiction. And that opens up the door for anything.”
Before Russell and Benjamin have to hurry off for their next appointment, there’s one last question which I have to ask. What is a ming-mong, and where did that term come from?
“‘Ming-mong’ is entirely down to Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts,” Benjamin explains mischievously, neatly absolving himself of any responsibility, “after having seen a 1980s episode of Victoria Wood’s sketch show. Jim Broadbent was playing Doctor Who, and Victoria Wood was playing his assistant, and one of the lines in that is ‘Doctor, have you got the ming-mongs?’, which was just a line to stand in for any of the technobabble you get on Doctor Who. And it’s just the most brilliant term. It’s used – with absolute affection, always – towards [Doctor Who fans].”
The Writer’s Tale was released by BBC Books in September 2008.