Friday, October 03, 2008

Rite on, Russ!

Keith Telly Topping finally received his - much-anticipated - review copy of The Writer's Tale from those lovely people at Ebury Press. He's hoping to put together a little review piece about the book to complement one of next week's Top Telly Tips. But, whilst he's busy scripting that, here's a few random thoughts about the book:

It's recommended. I mean, really recommended. Not just recommended for anybody who has an even passing interest in Doctor Who (that's a given, of course, and you'll all be buying it anyway in the same way that you would The Doctor Who Cookbook!). But also recommended for anybody who has an even passing interest in becoming a writer, in the nuts and bolts of how television production works, in media relations or, indeed, in reading what is - some script-extracts and on-set photos aside - a quasi-novel. A quasi-novel which is full of extraordinary characters, told in a clever and enterprising fashion and concerning themes as diverse as stress, obsession, fame, guilt, redemption and - quite beautifully - magnificence in the cut-throat world of the British broadcast media in the early years of the Twenty First Century. It's a very candid book. Not candid in any sort of 'X-knocked-off-Y in the TARDIS console room' kind-of way but nakedly candid about the process of writing and about making Doctor Who and being Russell Davies.

On first impressions - and I'm still only about two thirds of the way through the book as I write this - it appears on one level as a quite glorious meditation on the nature of drive, a really genuine and revealing glimpse behind the scenes at a major - and wildly successful - TV production and at the thought processes that go through Russell Davies's far-bigger-than-an-Adidas-Telstar-sized brain. It's warm, it's often touching, it's quite torrid at times. In places it's almost unbearably intense. At other moments, it's wee-in-yer-own-keks funny. There are all sort of 'my God, I never knew THAT' moments throughout: In one entry, for instance, we find out just how early the BBC told Russell about the intention to show season four before seven o'clock and that the person responsible for this decision was Peter Fincham not any of the temporary replacements who followed him after he quit the BBC. Which, of course, places some of the crass and hidiously personal attacks on Fincham's unwitting successor Roly Keating on Outpost Gallifrey last April by people who, frankly, should have known better into harsh and unwelcome context.

We get a few glimpses of Russell when he's angry, others (quite a few, it seems) when he's paranoid and depressed and yet more when he's just plain worn out by the whole circus that can surround Doctor Who these days. But we also get many, many examples of him when he's being a whirlwind of energy and emotion, a man who loves this daft little show every bit as much as all of us do and probably a damned sight more than most. And, all the while, his friend the journalist (and fan) Ben Cook asks him questions. Not the sort of questions that most of the rest of us would have bothered asking because we would have been far too busy trying to pump out of him whether the Cybermen are coming back any time soon. The gentle, intelligent probing that Ben does, nevertheless, ultimately make the book forcing Russell to appraise, to clarify, to explain and to question his own motives on more than one occasion. It's the stuff that fans NEED to be told, whether we/they want (or, indeed, deserve) to hear it, or not. The conversation has a humanity, a compassion and - sometimes - a bolshy insolence that is just what you would expect from Russell via his fiction. Here is someone who does not suffer fools gladly. But the fact that he suffers them at all (and frequently) is the important point in the end.

For me, one of the best bits of the book is the bit where Russell talks about the death of Verity Lambert. It will, trust me, leave all but the most hardened of hearts bubbling like a girl. He's a fan and he feels as deeply as we all do about this show. There are occasions where he burns, just as his Doctor does, like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. And, like his Other Doctor, he's fantastic.

What I think I really liked most about this book - much more even than all the, no doubt fascinating, "we are witnessing a moment of history here" comments - is the genuine friendship that exists between Ben and Russell. This really is exactly like evesdropping on a year-and-a-bit's worth of two mates swapping e-mails on a near-enough daily basic in which one of them talks almost exclusively about his job and the other nods, sympathetically on all the bad days and says "you lucky bastard" on all the good ones. It's just that, of course, the job in question is the job of showrunning Doctor Who. The Greatest Job In The World. Bar None. It was very illuminating, for instance, to see Ben and Russell spending whole Sunday mornings after a broadcast doing exactly what a bunch of us do over on The Ratings Thread at the Doctor Who Forum on Sunday mornings after a broadcast - studying, analysing and then crowing loudly about the overnight viewing figures and the audience share! And, I'm sure if we had got to see their Monday morning e-mails, they would have been talking just as enthusastically about the episode's AI score too! Occasional - welcome - intrusions from Steven Moffat and some of the other writers (James Moran writes a rather lovely little piece on the process of being re-written by Russell, in particular) merely add to the fun. As do various running themes - the slyness of television critics, cheerfully backstabbing shows when the mood fits and yet there, like a shot, with a fixed grin on their smug faces and brown tongue slavvering from their mouths, whenever the preview nights with the free champagne and the vol-au-vants come around. There's a charm, a wit and a sometimes savage tongue about The Writer's Tale that transcends what could have been, if handled only marginally differently, a very dry and academic take on "the serious process of a TV writer seriously writing a serious TV show. seriously." Instead, the book is alive, in all senses of the word. At times it's quite a hard read concerning subjects you really don't want to be a evesdropper upon (the e-mails surrounding the death of David Tennant's mother, are one such instance).

On other occasions, though, it is pure slapstick comedy. Some of the best bits of The Writer's Tale are the four or five pages devoted to The Theatre Of The Absurd that was the Voyage of the Damned press launch in late December 2007. These are some of the funniest and most sustained pieces of comic writing you'll read this year. I love the almost operatic gloom of Russell's description of this spectacularly hateful event. Plus, of course, the very thought of Julie Gardner "running around [the hotel room] in her bra and knickers" is, you know, one that won't leave me for many a day. Or many a night for that matter. Thank you to all concerned.

And he doesn't half admire Russell Tovey! There's almost an unrequited love story thread running throughout the entire book. In fact, would anyone agree with me that this is - by a quite considerable distance - the best example of "whom I'd like to take, roughly, up the back passage" literature since The Orton Diaries obsessive fixation with Fraser Hines? In many ways, it's a shame that so few of RTDs harshest critics will probably bother to read The Writer's Tale as I think they would learn far more from it - both about the man, and his ideas, and also how hard it is being him - than anyone else.

Just discovering thing like how astonshingly early the casting of Kylie and Catherine actually happened is another real revelation. Of course, logic tells one that this would have been how it happened ... but, we're TV fans us, we forget about logic most of the time. It would be really interesting for somebody with a lot of time on their hands (not me!) to take a day, at random, where something major happened in the book but that wasn't revealed to the public for several months afterwards and then have a look in archives of OG/DWF at what people were talking about on that day. Because I'll bet that the subjects under discussion would be about a million miles removed from what was going on at The Mill or in Russell's head.

I actually found myself almost having an emotional episode on page fifty four when Penny Carter DIDN'T become the Doctor's new companion. Like Ben and Russell, I was actually sad about this half-formed fictional character (but, one who'd developed to the point that she had a mum called Moira) suddenly never meeting the Doctor but, instead, obliviously walking past the TARDIS in the rain and off into obscurity. It's ridiculous, innit? (How long do we reckon it'll be before Penny fan-fic - quite possibly 'shipper fan-fic - starts appearing? I'll be willing to bet somebody's got a website up and running already.) She seemed like such a potentially great character - and her grandad (although I realise that he, essentially, became Wilf in the event) and his mates in the UFOWatch ... I'd really like to have seen them and to have glimpsed what Russell did with them. But, that's part of the fun about The Writer's Tale, paths not taken and roads not travelled.

Oh, and there's a particularly brilliant photo on page two hundred and seventy eight, one of a montage taken whilst the crew were in Italy filming The Fires Of Pompeii - of David, Phil Collinson and some other guy whom I don't recognise, but probably should - looking very pissed in a bar somewhere. If it were any more "Gay Boys Do Rome" it would be tinted pink.

The other major theme to come out of the book, if we didn't know it already (and we should, because Russell's dropped enough hints over the years), is just how desperately important Julie Gardner is to everything surrounding the smooth running of the production. The impression Russell gives, on many many occasions, is that Doctor Who, quite simply, wouldn't exist without her.

So, summery: Get thee, if thee hasn't already done so, to a book shop of thy choice and tell them the ISDN you want is 978-1-846-07571-1 and that it's published by BBC Books (part of the Random House group) and that you want it now. You will not regret this purchase, trust me.


Jane Smith said...

Keith, I was intending to review this book myself but you've already made a much better job of doing so than I could. Instead, I'll link to your piece, and will just tell everyone to buy themselves a copy.

Now I'm off to wrestle my copy away from my children, because I want to have another look.

Keith Topping said...

Go for it.

In fact, don't even credit me, just claim it as your own work.

Talent borrows, genius steals and all that.


Jane Smith said...

Too late, I already went and credited you. Next time I'll just do a nice big cut and paste job, and if anyone asks, insist that you must have copied me. OK?

(I have no idea how you write such frequent long blog posts and work for a living too. You must either be very organised, or obsessive!)

Keith Topping said...

Ah, bless yer cotton socks, chuck - it takes *years* of practice to achieve this live of gobshitedness...!