I feel very privileged. I’ve been freezing my extremities off, mid-February, on the almost wide-open top floor of BBC Television Centre, hanging around for snippets of interviews with busy people, when Mark Gatiss grabs me and takes me two floors below.
Suddenly I’m getting a personal set tour from the writer/exec producer of An Adventure in Space and Time. Mark and I both love TV, and of course Doctor Who, so hanging out in the deserted halls of the Centre before its closure is a poignant experience.
On the fifth floor, close to where the original Doctor Who personnel were housed 50 years ago, the design team have created a suite of retro 1960s offices, with partitions, old typewriters and pencil sharpeners... He shows me the Tardis design plans on draughtsman’s boards and 1963 memos tacked to boards, many of which were found preserved in the BBC’s Written Archive at Caversham.
Mark is having a blast and calls this project “a labour of love – I first started talking about doing it about 12 or 13 years ago.” We’re of a similar age so our memories of Who compare. “We’re Pertwee boys!” But we love all the earlier, 1960s stuff too. “It’s magical,” he says, “because even though this era of Doctor Who is not my era, the idea of the genesis of it all has always fascinated me.”
His intention right from the start was to give the drama universality, blending Death of a Salesman with King Lear. “It’s about the fact that none of us likes to be replaced. And we don’t like to say goodbye. So really it could be anyone who doesn’t want to give up their favourite job. It just happens to be Doctor Who. That’s Bill Hartnell’s story.”
He reveals that, as part of the writing process, he’s had to be ruthless with himself, cutting cherished scenes and subplots, honing and focusing. “It’s about four outsiders: Waris [Hussein] is the first Indian director, a gay man; Verity [Lambert] is the first female producer; Sydney [Newman] is this breath of fresh air from Canada and even though he’s not young, he’s young in spirit; and Bill is this curious man known for a particular type of part who is transformed by the Doctor. So that was always the intention, but it’s become very much about Bill and Verity.”
Mark dropped an entire subplot about the creation of the Daleks, “the pull between [writer] Terry Nation’s description and Ray Cusick’s design”. Now these two don’t appear as characters at all. “I had a joke I was fond of – so of course it had to go! – but I love the fact that Ridley Scott was the first designer and I wrote a scene with [associate producer] Mervyn Pinfield and Ray Cusick where Mervyn says, ‘Oh, Ridley did some preliminary designs before he left the project.’ And they roll them out on the desk and there’s a look of amazement. Ray just says, ‘Yes, I think I’ll go my own way…’”
Of course the Daleks still feature. “Absolutely. They’re crucial to the success of the show. It’s just become much more about getting the show on and the first story. I’ve been interviewing people for a long time, and with my anorak on, it’s been difficult not to give people proper credit. You just have to be grown up about things.”
The script allows for brief cameos for several people who worked on the early episodes, including Hartnell companion-actors Anneke Wills, Carole Ann Ford and William Russell, who’s in his late 80s now. “Lovely man. He remembered vividly Bill coming in to rehearsals with a copy of the Evening Standard and there was a cartoon of ‘De Gaullek’ – De Gaulle as a Dalek – and Bill said, ‘Look at that. Our arses are in butter.’ And William said to me at the read-through, ‘I tell you what would have made Bill’s year is him being on a stamp.’”
There’s also a cameo for Mark Eden, who played Marco Polo in seven episodes in 1964 and was part of Doctor Who’s very first Radio Times cover. “He’s playing Donald Baverstock, who is sort of Sydney’s boss and sent the famous memo ‘You are not to make more than four episodes.’ He’s amazing for 84 and looks ten years younger. I thought I’d love to have someone emblematic of the Hartnell period. And because Marco Polo is the most famous lost Hartnell, it all fell into place rather nicely.”
The script includes 60s Who directors Waris Hussein and Richard Martin, and Douglas Camfield fleetingly as a production assistant, but what about Chris Barry? “Again it’s been one of those things where you have to print the legend. Originally it was just going to be Waris. I was going to make out he directed more than he did for dramatic licence – like in the BBC4 Steptoe biopic there’s no sign of John Howard Davies. As it transpired, it suited the story that Richard Martin comes on board, but there’s no room to explain that two people directed the first Dalek story.”
We take a stroll around TV Centre’s circular corridor, which has been repainted, and Mark points out that even the original diamond pattern has been restored on the floor.
His script will cover many aspects of Hartnell’s tenure as the Doctor. “It’s basically his three years, the beginning and his first two stories, but we go to the end, The Tenth Planet.” But crucially, Verity Lambert left after the first two years. “It’s clear that she was absolutely his rock and then when she goes, there’s a problem… you can see it, he immediately didn’t like the new producer, John Wiles, but also his illness got worse.”
The drama becomes “a series of goodbyes which really rocked his world, starting with Carole Ann Ford [who played Susan]. And he just couldn’t understand why anyone would leave a successful show.” At this juncture, Mark isn’t sure whether they’ll actually film the regeneration. It was in an earlier draft “but it was about 12 pages over and was one of the obvious things to go. What I’d like to do, as we have David and Reece [Shearsmith] and it was perfectly possible to film it in 1966, we can probably do it quite efficiently now. It would be a perfect extra, wouldn’t it? I think we should try and do it.”
So far, all the filming has involved people in their “civvies”, everyday clothes, but “We’ve done one little bit with David dressed as the Doctor, which made my heart flip.” He’s most looking forward to seeing the sets in Wimbledon: the junkyard, the Tardis and the planet Vortis. “We’ve got three Menoptra. They’re beautiful. It’s so exciting! And on Sunday morning we’re shooting the Daleks on Westminster Bridge!”
Mark insists that I go along on that day – not that I need any persuading...
I arrive just as four Daleks are being offloaded from the back of a van. They’re doing a few shots just after dawn (on 17 February) before the crowds arrive. And in a nice touch, Mark’s partner Ian Hallard is playing the director Richard Martin. Everyone is wrapped up against the cold but having huge fun.
The main talking point is the fact (then unpublicised) that Reece Shearsmith will be playing – very briefly – second Doctor Patrick Troughton. “I first asked Reece about 12 years ago,” explains Mark, “when I started thinking about this project. We were in the midst of League of Gentlemen and I just remember thinking, if anyone plays Patrick Troughton, it should be Reece. Like the second Doctor, he’s small, saturnine and a comic genius. The complete package. He thought it was a fantastic idea and I’ve kind of nurtured it all this time.”
The next time I see Mark Gatiss is at Wimbledon Studios (25 February). It’s standing in for the BBC’s dilapidated studio base at Lime Grove (now demolished) and occasionally for Riverside Studios.
One corner is stuffed with old-fashioned cameras and TV monitors, another has a well appointed set for a moment from 1964 serial Marco Polo. Nearby stands the police box on a small sandy set, which, Mark explains, will double up as “The Roof of the World!” from Marco Polo as well as the Antarctic for The Tenth Planet. He promises “little glimpses” of various episodes across the Hartnell era. “Not re-creations of the episodes but ‘people scenes’. It gives you a flavour of the colour and splendour of the historicals.”
They’ve built a large, elevated 1960s production gallery, which looks down into the quite stunning re-creation of the Tardis control room.
I’m a bit deflated because the lights are down and a tarpaulin is draped over the famous hexagonal console, but Mark reassures me it’ll be coming off shortly. And when it does, and all the lights are on, it really does look quite fabulous. In the 60s, the panels were somewhat thrown together using dials and switches found in storage. No such items exist these days so everything has had to be re-made, remoulded at great expense.
I can’t resist pressing some buttons, flicking a couple of dials, fingering the fast-return switch… I touch one bright knob and sear my finger. An instant, stinging blister! Mark says almost everyone on set has done the same – and we remember you can see Frazer Hines doing it on screen in the 1968 story, The Web of Fear.
For a while I sit alone in the Tardis, on a leather chair, watching the action across the other side of the studio. This Tardis set is so big and so “realistic”, it’s easy to believe I’ve time-travelled and am inside the Tardis in 1963. It’s fanboy heaven!
Now I realise it’s almost exactly 30 years since I first set foot in the Tardis – at TV Centre in November 1983 to watch the recording of Peter Davison’s Planet of Fire. If I was in any way blasé back then as a teenager, I’m not now.
And I’m not the only one. Peter Capaldi is on set, just here to observe and lap it up. Also Hartnell’s granddaughter Jessica Carney shows up with the ring and the Astrakhan fur hat he wore as the Doctor. Who’s holy relics. She insists that Mark puts them on. It’s a photo op, but the BBC publicist has vetoed any pictures being taken on set by visitors and especially the press.
Mark is in charge, however, and happily snapping away with his iPhone, so he agrees to take some photos of me by the Tardis console, for later consumption. Friend for life!
We have a nose round the set together. It’s a wonderful, painstaking re-creation of the original. Being such an anorak, I notice that the back of the set, a wall of glowing indentations, is actually a proper set wall rather than the long line of flat, photographic blow-ups of circles seen in the original An Unearthly Child. “We’ve been a bit kinder to it,” says Mark. And you can’t fault that, although they have allowed one small section towards the rear to be a 2D painted cloth, which he thinks would make great Tardis shower curtains.
Mark explains otherwise everything is almost exactly as it was 50 years ago. There’s no Ormolu clock: “We couldn’t find one, but we’ve got lots of items near as dammit. The amazing thing is we think those brass pillars [either side of the doors] are the originals. They were hired from a place called Trading Post and these are from Trading Post and if you look at the pictures they’re exactly the same. They’ve come home.
“The only thing we haven’t been able to do is that enormous light in the ceiling. Couldn’t afford it. We got as much as we could. We’ll probably do it as a matte.” The control console is a sickly green, as it was in 1963 to render a more brilliant white on monochrome TV sets. But I notice one small omission: the floor is painted beige whereas it should have been mostly blue.
The first episode An Unearthly Child was recorded twice (the pilot and a revised version that was aired) and scenes from both are being restaged. “The big set piece is the pilot going catastrophically wrong. So we had to choreograph the Tardis doors going wrong – it’s very Eric and Ernie. I’m trying to get BBC Worldwide to cough up so we can remake the missing episodes!”
He says that each day brings fresh excitement, “because there’s something new virtually every day. The junkyard has just gone and been replaced by Marco Polo but in true Doctor Who style we’ve reused the steps. I hope people notice because it’s what they’d have done.
“And here’s a strange thing. All the extra proppage has come from Cardiff. And those gates are from my episode with Diana Rigg [The Crimson Horror]. They’ll be in The Reign of Terror in the background.” This scene is shot after lunch and a small piece of gate has broken off, which Mark gives me as a memento.
We go for a stroll down to the costume department. Four Daleks line the corridor, and Mark whispers that he’s thinking of buying one. He shows me a freakish cloth mask that I fail to identify as the face of an original Tenth Planet Cyberman.
Then he shows me the artwork for the Doctor Who Annual cover that we glimpse briefly in the drama (and kindly gives me a copy). It’s a subtle improvement on the 1965 original.
In a large space a costume designer is wrestling with a set of Menoptra butterfly wings (from The Web Planet). Mark shows me the Menoptra masks, just painted, on a shelf. There will be no ant-like Zarbi, though. “No, can’t afford them. They’re made of fibreglass and far too expensive.” I suggest that you probably couldn’t pay an actor to wear one of those uncomfortable costumes now. He laughs: “I know plenty of people who’d be delighted.”
“Actually,” he jokes, “I feel let down by fandom because I assumed somebody would have made a Zarbi over the years and nobody bloody has!”
I’d like to thank Mark and everyone involved on An Adventure in Space and Time for giving so generously of their time to Radio Times.
It was an immense pleasure to watch them re-creating the past for such a prestigious BBC production. Truly, a gem.
An Adventure in Space and Time airs in the UK on Thursday 21 November, 9.00pm BBC2
[Here are our Dalek Invasion pictures]
Read all RadioTimes.com's interviews and set reports for An Adventure in Space and Time