Russell T Davies: The saviour of Saturday night drama

With the second series of the revamped and highly successful 'Doctor Who' imminent, its writer talks to Ciar Byrne about the current state of British television drama
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The Independent Online

Russell T Davies is the most jovial of men, with a deep belly laugh to match his towering stature, but he could not have climbed to the top of the television scriptwriting ladder without a certain steeliness.

British drama is in "genuinely good health", the writer behind the revised version of Doctor Who believes, but if there is a problem, it is writers who are to blame. "If there's a paucity, I think it's the fault of the writers, because the commissioners are desperate for good material," he says. "The greatest censor at work is the writer sitting at home saying, they'll never accept that on BBC1 or ITV."

He has little truck with fellow scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern's recent complaint that there is no decent drama on ITV at 9pm.

"It's daft to say you won't watch anything at nine o'clock. Those people running at nine o'clock now were us 15 years ago. They might have to write a Midsomer Murders to get to where they need to be in the industry to have a bit of clout. "I got The Second Coming on to ITV, about the return of the son of God, at the end of which God was killed and atheism conquered the world. I was very lucky to get that made. But then again, luck is just hard work a lot of the time."

Nor does he agree that the only way to convey truths about the world is to write about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. "Jimmy McGovern banging on, bless him, about how drama should be saying something about the world, I think is misinterpreted, and misinterpreted by him, to mean therefore drama has to be set in a working-class house. If drama really has to be about the thing it is about, then that's excluding 90 per cent of the fiction ever written.

"You can set something on the moon... you can put on Shakespeare and be in the Forest of Arden and saying something about the world. There are plenty of writers who are lazy or bad, but if you're writing well, it doesn't matter what you're writing, your views of the world will come out."

Whether he is at home in Manchester or in his new pied-à-terre in Cardiff Bay, for the past nine months Davies has been awoken at eight o'clock every morning recently by a courier bearing the rushes from the previous day's filming of Doctor Who. He may be credited with single-handedly reviving family drama on British television but Davies but prefers not to be on set when his script is being filmed.

The new series starts on BBC1 on Saturday and next month Torchwood, BBC3's X-Files-style Doctor Who spin-off, which Davies also writes, goes into production in Cardiff. Hard work is the key to his success and he is not afraid to admit it.

As chief scriptwriter on Doctor Who, overseeing the work of fellow scribes of the calibre of The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss and Coupling creator Stephen Moffat, Davies has, true to his word, removed the shackles from his imagination.

A sinister race of catwomen, an encounter between Queen Victoria and a werewolf, the devil and a terrifying squid-like monster all feature in the second series. Alongside action-packed adventure sequences, Davies also explores the Doctor, now played by Scottish actor David Tennant, and his assistant Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, on a more intimate level.

"Stephen Moffat has written what is practically a love story for the Doctor in episode four. That's never been seen. It's very understated, very beautifully done, but it's nonetheless a Time Lord falling in love and Rose's reaction to him falling in love with someone else."

Elements of the old Doctor Who, including the Cybermen and K9, make a comeback in series two, following the reappearance of the Daleks in the first series, when Christopher Eccleston brought a wry northern charm to the part of the Doctor.

Davies is a great believer in the backstory. "If you're doing Dracula, you want the crucifixes and the brides and the bats and the howling wolf. Every science-fiction series has its race of robots on the rampage, so you might as well use the Cybermen."

He was particularly gratified to receive an email from a fellow Manchester resident, The Royle Family writer Craig Cash, whose enjoyment of the Dalek episode was greatly enhanced because his children were so excited that their parents knew more about the next week's monster than they did.

"When I was young, my dad used to teach classics and I used to love the Greek and Roman myths. If you read book one of Harry Potter, it's steeped in backstory. For something to come with mythology to it really helps to give it a resonance. A young audience likes an echo of the history of the Cybermen, whether it's mentioned on Newsround, or a website, or mum and dad talking."

More than 10 million viewers tuned in to the Christmas episode of Doctor Who and, far from resting on his laurels, Davies is all too aware of the pressure of ensuring the new series continues to delight. A childhood fan of American soap Knots Landing, he jokingly recalls being feeling "scarred" by one disappointing episode.

"The whole Saturday night was trashed. My mum and dad would go out and I would have a bag of crisps and a pork pie and watch Knots Landing. I remember thinking even the pork pie was rubbish."

To ensure no young viewer is similarly traumatised, Davies has insisted on up to 12 drafts of each episode in the new series and has had no qualms about rewriting other people's scripts.

"I would have enormous reservations about doing that if this was a programme like Clocking Off, authored pieces in which people have something very specific to say about the world. Then you should let the writer's voice flourish. This is unashamedly a piece of entertainment on a Saturday night, there to get mainstream appeal. I'm afraid all my principles fly out the window."

He is full of admiration for the designers and directors who realise his ideas, letting slip that the budget for each episode is "a significant third" less than the £1.2m that has been reported because he feels it "makes a mockery of what people are doing".

"It's the same budget as Waking the Dead, which is a lovely show, but it's all set in London, standing in offices and morgues and sitting in Rovers."

A lifelong fan of Doctor Who, Davies refuses to pander to others who share his addiction. He fears a lot of science-fiction writers, particularly in America, pay too much attention to what is written on fan websites.

"I think it's a huge mistake. If you came to me and said 'You've made a brand new programme, I'd like to run it past a focus group of 2,000 people,' I'd say, 'No way, no good drama has ever been made that way.'"

He has even less time for professional television critics, believing they fail to engage with television as popular culture because they watch shows like Doctor Who on a VHS tape on Tuesday morning, rather than at the point of transmission on Saturday night, making for a completely different atmosphere.

Davies was born in Swansea, and making Doctor Who and now Torchwood in Wales has been something of a homecoming after spending most of his career in Manchester.

His breakthrough came in 1998 with Queer As Folk, the controversial Channel 4 drama about gay men living and loving in Manchester, which he freely admits was closely based on personal experience.

"There are people who won't talk to me again after that. Vince [the main character] does that speech about losing his virginity while watching The Two Ronnies. It's word for word what happened to an ex-boyfriend of mine."

Davies's career as a scriptwriter began with an apprenticeship at Granada, where his first job was on Children's Ward working under Paul Abbott, still a great friend, and Kay Mellor. He begged to be allowed to write for Coronation Street, but is glad to have been turned down. "If they'd said yes I'd never have left."

Although his dramas have covered a dazzling breadth of subjects, the one theme running through them all is "writing impossible things". There is Bob and Rose, in which a gay man falls in love with a woman; The Second Coming, starring Eccleston as Jesus, and Mine All Mine, in which Griff Rhys Jones plays a man who inherits an entire Welsh town.

For his next project, dubbed MGM (More Gay Men), Davies plans to return to the domestic arena of Queer As Folk. Nicola Schindler, doyenne of Manchester-based Red Productions, is waiting patiently until he has finished Doctor Who - and he is signed up for at least two more series - to make the new drama, which will be "a bit more 40-year-old".

"I thought of Death in Venice. Like any 40-year-old, you start to feel like 20-year-olds are an alien race. It will be on BBC1 hopefully. I'm quite aware that the BBC hasn't got a big gay series and should."

Entering his 40s has pricked Davies's conscience about his Welsh roots. He admits his first attempt at writing a drama set in Wales, Mine All Mine, was a flop - "it died a death, a terrible disaster" - but says it has only made him more determined to try again.

"When Mine All Mine didn't work, there were a lot of people sneering, saying, 'Ah well, failed, that's the end of Welsh drama, you'll never get that on the network.' The solution is just to turn round and do it again."

He hopes to do just that with Torchwood, which is set in Cardiff in 2006 with a strong Welsh cast and crew - although there are also some English actors, including Burn Gorman, fresh from playing Mr Guppy in BBC1's Bleak House. "The more you can get that accent on screen, the more normalising it is," he explains. Is it an attempt to get more Welsh voices on to network television by stealth? He lets out another of his trademark huge guffaws. "It is a stealth campaign," he agrees gleefully. "Stealth Welsh."