Russell T Davies: One of Britain's foremost television writers

With a third series of 'Doctor Who' in production and two spin-off series about to materialise, isn't Russell T Davies tired of writing far-fetched populism? Absolutely not, he tells Cathy Pryor
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The Independent Online

Picture this. The year's about 1977, the place is Swansea. It is a quiet Sunday. The setting's a room in a suburban home - a bedroom or a living room, take your pick. There's a kid hunched over a table scribbling. He's a big kid, about 14 years old, and he's utterly absorbed in what he's doing. It's a cartoon strip, three whole pages of it, intricately drawn, full of detail and life. The kid loves cartoon superheroes: he loves Doctor Who. He's done the occasional Doctor Who cartoon, too. All he wants to do when he grows up is draw for Marvel Comics. The next day, his comic strip is passed around at school. Even the teachers read it. They especially like it when they're caricatured in it (which is often). It's got the whole school gripped - this weekly adventure from a schoolboy called Russell Davies.

Cue forward 30 years. (You can imagine the whooshing sound the Tardis makes at this point if you like). Not much has changed. Except the audience, which has grown from a few schoolkids to the six million who tuned in to Doctor Who most Saturday nights, for the recent second series starring David Tennant and Billie Piper. Unless you're from outer space you'll know that the revival, after a 16 year hiatus, of the world's longest-running sci-fi series was pretty much down to Davies, now one of Britain's foremost television writers, who had been pestering the BBC to let him write a new series of Doctor Who for years. It has been an unqualified critical and commercial hit. It's also spawned two spinoffs: one for CBBC, called The Sarah Jane Adventures, which will begin screening next year; and Torchwood, a 13-part drama starting tonight on BBC3, of which more in a minute.

All of this might not have happened, though, if Davies, now 43, had ended up a cartoonist. In his adolescence, he says, "I would draw and draw and draw... Every week I'd do a three-page adventure. And it would be passed around every class. This was a comprehensive, 2,000 people, loads of people read it. Kids these days would be dealing in drugs - I was dealing in cartoons. I lived for that. Every Sunday, for a couple of years, I'd do the latest adventure... I haven't thought about that for ages! I'd forgotten how important that was every week, doing those pages. So much detail and so many gags! Cliffhangers as well! Rattling great big daft adventure stories! God, that was a laugh... It took me a long time to realise that I wasn't drawing, though: I was writing.

"But it's funny, because you do a full circle, you come all the way back round to Doctor Who, because it's the only form of television I've worked in where you get to write in great big pictures. Spaceships flying into Big Ben! Thousands of Daleks flying through the sky! Cybermen marching through the void! It's my favourite thing about it, because most other television is mostly dialogue, and with Doctor Who you get a chance to write with pictures, big pictures, and I love that about it."

He loves a lot of things, though, this Russell T Davies (the "T" is fictional, by the way: he made it up at some point to distinguish him from the radio presenter Russell Davies). A big fellow who's been described by other interviewers with words like "jovial" and "avuncular" (he's even been called "a gentle yeti"), he comes across as something of a hyperbolist. That's no doubt partly because he's in interview mode, and partly because he's a storyteller: exaggeration makes for a better yarn, doesn't it? He's wildly enthusiastic about Doctor Who, says he "loves" talking about it. In the same vein, he insists he doesn't mind at all tha t Christopher Eccleston, the Doctor for the first series, and Billie Piper, loved by all as the Doctor's assistant Rose Tyler, have both left (Piperhas been replaced by the Doctor's first black assistant, Martha Jones, who will be played by Freema Agyeman). "It was all planned! It's not like I walked into the office one day and someone said, "Oh, the cast are leaving!" We always knew. It's the one programme on earth that can bear it, I think, because it's got a history of Doctors and companions changing. The format is greater than any one person. It keeps on renewing itself. It feels good, to be honest."

A "swotty" boy from a bright family - his parents were both teachers - Davies gave up his cartoonist ambitions when a teacher advised him that, since he was colour blind, he'd never work in magazines ("though you look back and think, that's probably nonsense"). After school, he studied English at Worcester College, Oxford, worked in theatre in Swansea for a while, then landed a job at the BBC. He began to produce children's TV, then to write. His first full series, Dark Season (1991), included an early role for the young Kate Winslet. In 1992 he moved to Granada, where he worked on Coronation Street (a soap opera of which he's still fond). From there, he moved to the independent Red Production Company, for which he wrote Queer as Folk in 1999, a drama about three gay men living it up in Manchester that caused huge controversy at the time for its explicit sex scenes, and made him instantly famous. It was so popular that the US commissioned their own version in 2000. Davies then caused another fuss with Bob and Rose (2001), which starred Alan Davies as a gay man who falls in love with a woman (Lesley Sharp). If Queer as Folk had offended conservatives, Bob and Rose upset some in the gay community, who accused Davies of being a traitor to the cause. Not content to leave it at that, Davies's next project was The Second Coming (2003), a drama starring Christopher Ecclestone as a video shop worker who realises that he is the Son of God (Davies, an atheist, hoped it would provoke people into thinking about religion.) Mine All Mine, a 2004 black comedy set in Swansea, starring Griff Rhys Jones as a man who announces that he owns the city, was critically well received but didn't win huge audiences. But 2005's Casanova, starring David Tennant, was, like Doctor Who, a return to form.

Now we've got Torchwood, a big-budget sci-fi series based in Cardiff that revolves around Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a Time Agent from the 51st century who was also the first openly bisexual character to appear on Doctor Who. Harkness plays the head of Torchwood, a crack team of agents dedicated to dealing with alien visitations, joined in the first episode by policewoman Gwen Cooper (Eva Myles, who played a psychic maid in the episode of Doctor Who about Charles Dickens). One of the reasons for the spinoff is that Doctor Who's usual timeslot imposes certain limitations. Screening a programme at 9pm allows more "adult writing", Davies says. "I don't mean sex or swearing; I just mean life, the beat and the tick of it, Gwen in her flat with her boyfriend. It wouldn't work so well at 7pm on a Saturday."

The name Torchwood is already familiar to fans. Apart from being an anagram of Doctor Who, it's been referred to on Doctor Who several times in a mysterious manner. In fact, Davies rather likes repeating names and references. He's used the names Harkness and Tyler for characters several times, something he says helps him get a grip on the blank page. He also does that with concepts, and not always his own: for instance, the first episode of Torchwood features two obvious steals - a prison cell straight out of Silence of the Lambs and an "amnesia pill" that will seem familiar to anyone who's seen Men in Black. But Davies defends this as simple storytelling. "It's all there for the taking, I do it gladly. The ending of Doctor Who, where we had to separate the Doctor and Rose, that was unashamedly taken from the Phillip Pullman novels. They're brilliant, and every child reads them. So that creates a resonance, when they've got a story in one part of their minds and they see Doctor Who and think, 'Oh right! You can change stories!' If you want to get pretentious about it, it's exactly what Shakespeare did. As long as you put yourself into it I think it's all there for the grabbing."

As for the stories that Davies elects to tell, he's such a versatile and prolific writer that it can be hard, looking over his career, to see any common themes. He's often provocative, and there's often a gay element (Davies is of course gay himself, and has been happily involved with a customs officer called Andrew Smith for the past seven years). But apart from that? Does Davies himself see any common elements? "Making the impossible work - I do like doing that," he says. "A gay man falling in love with a woman. Jesus coming back. Any Doctor Who story. Mine All Mine, about a man who inherited a town... I like taking big, high-concept ideas and pulling them down and making them real. The impossible can become very believable. Every story is ordinary people in extraordinary circiumstances. Even if you take falling in love, which, although it's very common, feels extraordinary when it happens to you."

Speaking of falling in love, Davies - who, despite his Oxford background, is anything but elitist - believes the most remarkable examples of it on TV recently came to us courtesy of Big Brother, a show he adores. "One of the things that annoys me is that snobbishness about television, reality TV in particular. When I have that conversation with people, I have to sit there and painstakingly explain to them that I don't love it ironically, that I really genuinely find it enlightening and fascinating and maddening and beautiful. The relationship between Craig and Anthony, a gay man falling in love with a straight man, I have never seen a drama portray that as convincingly and in as much detail. In any episode, two people are there talking to each other having a daft, inconsequential conversation. They're beautiful, moments like that. The failure to engage with reality television by treating it as superficial is madness. So many cultural commentators, and by that I also mean the man in the pub, assume that the millions of people who watch it are stupid. It's like a form of apartheid! Oh, I'm off on one now..." he ends unexpectedly, starting to laugh at his own vehemence.

In one sense, though, Davies says he understands why people are snobbish about TV. "The TV sits there in the corner of the living room, so there's that familiarity breeding contempt, and you pay for the cinema and you pay for the theatre, and they're dark spaces, they're like modern churches, you go in and there's silence and then great words are spoken in a loud echoing voice. And there's a solemnity to that. And I love that. But the TV's just beetling away in the corner, it's there 24/7, so you're not going to put it on a pedestal. As a result you can miss what's good about it."

What's good about it at the moment undeniably includes Doctor Who. But is it something that Davies wants to do forever? Will the time come for him to do a Doctor Who himself and let the writer regenerate into someone else? "Oh, I think that's bound to happen at some stage," he says. "There's 99 per cent definitely going to be a fourth series, but the BBC never commission further ahead than that, and we haven't discussed beyond it. I do have a lovely time but the only trial for me is that I don't live in Cardiff, I live in Manchester, and I spend a lot of time away from home. When that becomes a drag I think it will be the signal that it's time to go home. But not yet. I dread what I'll do afterwards because every other drama is set in a bedroom or an office or a kitchen. And I think, what am I going to be like when I have to go back to normal domestic settings all the time? I'm really going to suffer! So, no, I'm not in that much of a hurry."

Neither are the six million fans, either, who clearly love what Davies has done with the good Doctor. And what's not to like? So much detail and so many gags! Cliffhangers as well! ... That's what watching Doctor Who is all about: it makes us all kids again, waiting for another one of those rattling great big daft adventure stories.

* 'Torchwood' begins tonight on BBC3 at 9pm and is repeated on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm. See Preview, page 31.