It’s 12 February 2013 and the cast and crew are up on the chilly seventh floor of BBC TV Centre, an iconic building about to be abandoned by the BBC after five decades. An Adventure in Space and Time will be the last drama ever made here and, somewhat fittingly, today they’re filming scenes in the office of 1960s drama boss Sydney Newman, the man who created Doctor Who.
A few meters away, producer Matt Strevens and director Terry McDonough are watching the unfolding action on a TV monitor. Between them, they have an impressive track record. Strevens also produced The Bill, Skins, Misfits and Silk, and McDonough has directed Wire in the Blood, Homefront, The Street and Breaking Bad.
Both are delighted to be working on such a prestigious project as An Adventure in Space and Time, and right now they’re chuffed when I give them the latest Radio Times. This edition (remember, we’re back in February) has published the first photo from their shoot – of David Bradley and Lesley Manville as William Hartnell and his wife Heather on a bench in Wimbledon Park.
First, I talk to Matt Strevens:
Is this your first time at TV Centre?
“Yeah, as a freelance producer. But I’ve visited a few times. I came as a kid and remember seeing Bread [BBC sitcom, 1986–91] and things filmed here as a teenager, so it’s bittersweet because so much of it is empty now.”
What’s it like for you actually filming here?
“When I first came on the project, we weren’t sure where we’d be filming, because it’s a BBC Cardiff/Wales production and we always knew we’d do the exterior here if we were lucky. But as this place became vacated, we suddenly went, ‘The more locations we can get here, the more we get a feeling for the place.’ So it’s been amazing.
“So often in period dramas and biopics you’re always faking up areas, you can never go to the right place, or they’ve changed too much, whereas this actually still looks as it did. We’re very lucky. We’ll have spent seven days filming here out of a 22-day shoot.
“I realised yesterday that we’ve got an old memo. We’ve gone to the archive and reproduced a lot of original material for our sets and I read the top of the memo from Verity Lambert and it said ‘Room 5017’ and we’re filming her scenes on the fifth floor, just along from it. So we’re even on the same floor that she would have worked so it’s really spooky.
[Matt explains, in detail that I’ll omit, the scenes they’re filming today, including when Newman considers replacing Hartnell.]
“The great arc of the story is that only by sacking Wiliam Hartnell that Doctor Who is still around 50 years later.”
Yes, and Mark Gatiss told me the other day who’s playing Troughton.
“I have to say the looky-likeys are unbelievable. The actress Jemma [Powell] playing Jackie [Hill, Barbara], you can’t tell her apart. Claudia [Grant] who’s playing Carole Ann Ford again looks amazing. [Matt shows me a group photo taken on the first day.]
“On Sunday we have the Daleks on Westminster Bridge and also Sydney Newman’s arrival at the gates – and the commissionaire, Harry, who gives him a hard time at the gate is played by William Russell.”
[Matt also explains in detail how Carole Ann Ford herself and other 1960s faces will pop up in cameos.] “So the diehard fans might notice. We were careful not to go too far down that road because we just wanted a nice little touch. To think that Bill Russell, who’s 89 now, can, in the 50th anniversary, be a part of it is wonderful.”
I hear the read-through was quite emotional.
“I was sitting next to Mark – I was reading the stage directions – and both of us were like… it was really moving because they’re there and then they’ve got the people playing them sitting next to them. And Waris Hussein [Who’s first director] was here at TV Centre on the first day and he said, ‘It’s probably a good thing I’m not going to be around after this.’ [He flew off to the US]. Obviously we’ve dramatised events. He’s a director and he understands the process but it would be difficult for him not to go, ‘That’s not how we did it.’
“The most moving part was we got David dressed as the Doctor and none of us had seen him dressed like that and we were all down one end of the corridor near the scene dock and the first time we saw him, as David turned the corner and walked towards camera dressed as the Doctor, and I’m standing next to Waris and our eyes started to go. I said, ‘It’s spooky isn’t it?’ And he couldn’t talk. And what you saw in that moment was not only a remembrance of his youth, but of Bill who’s obviously long gone, Verity who’s long gone… all of that, it was all going through his face.”
And then you’re going down to Wimbledon Studios…
“The Tardis set itself is an exact replica. It cost a fortune because when it was originally made in the 60s, they found all these knobs and switches in their props store and the designer stuck them on, but now none of that exists so all of that must be cast individually, hand-made, piece by piece.
“And we’re re-creating the junkyard set, a bit of Dalek corridor from the original story as well. Then we’re doing a full production gallery in the studio. We’re refilming some of the original scenes.”
Are you doing the regeneration?
“We’re not actually. No, we’re not going that far. Whether we decide on the day – as we have David as Bill and Reece as Patrick – to do it if we have time… So it’s just their meeting – it’s the old guard and the new and they have a magic reel moment that happens and that’s it.”
Matt also describes several other scenes later in the drama that are “absolutely heartbreaking”. Then he’s called away and director Terry McDonough has a spare moment to talk. [Terry is pictured far left and Matt Strevens near left.] He explains he’s been working largely in the States for the past five years and returned to the UK especially for this project…
How are you finding it, working at TV Centre?
“We couldn’t ask for a better location. When we first started, we thought we’d have to find somewhere that looked like it. Almost impossible. It’s unique. We’d have had to take photographs and have blow-ups outside of our sets.”
How many shots must you get done today?
“It’s a period drama, so not as many as for a contemporary piece but about 25. And it’s all single camera.”
Highlight so far?
“Of what we’ve been shooting? Getting access to this building. Being able to point your camera anywhere you want to and it’s all here for you. We’ve had to paint over some posts and electric light fittings that have changed since the 1960s.”
And coming up?
“Watching William Hartnell walk onto the Tardis set for the first time. In two week’s time when we’re in the studio in Wimbledon.”
And what about the Daleks on Westminster Bridge?
“Yeah, an early start on Sunday morning at 6am so we can get a clear shot of four Daleks travelling across the Bridge. We’re trying to replicate wherever possible, and that’s the same on our sets in Wimbledon, reproducing several scenes from the original pilot and the [transmitted] episode, word for word, set for set, so hopefully you’ll be able to mix from the black-and-white original into our colour version.”
Are you a bit of a fan on the quiet?
“I was big fan when I was a kid. My Doctor was Jon Pertwee.”
Did you meet Waris Hussein?
“Yes. Spent some time with Waris. He was a fount of so much information because he was there. We’ve managed to get lots of his original paperwork in shot. He gave us some great insight into how it was made. In great detail, like how they kept the floor quiet and how the floor manager does the countdown with his hands. There’s no ‘Action!’ shout. He drops his hand and off they go.”
I was going to say it’s a shame Lime Grove Studios was demolished but actually it’s probably a blessing.
“Yes, it sounds horrible. Also the good thing is that Brian Cox knew Sydney Newman so he’s got a good angle on him. With both actors, David and Brian, we studied their faces for a while and worked out the best angles to shoot them from to make them look most like the original characters.”
Terry is called away and the next time I hook up with him and Matt is on Westminster Bridge, on a cold Sunday morning (17 February).
Matt explains: “The plan is we have a camera positioned on top of County Hall and we also have a wide shot of the Houses of Parliament and the four Daleks travelling across. And there’s just a short moment with the [1960s] director Richard Martin and a little team shooting it. Ian Hallard [Mark Gatiss’s partner] is playing Richard Martin.
“We’ve had four Daleks made for us to the original design. And we’ve got Mark Is and Mark IIs. The Daleks were slightly different after the first time they appeared – when they brought them back for The Dalek Invasion of Earth, they had bumpers and dishes on their backs. No expense spared on this budget of mine!”