“I’m in a Zygon nest and the Zygons become twins and they morph into people, so a Zygon might have embodied me.”
As best she can, Joanna Page, who it should be pointed out, is dressed as Elizabeth I, is trying to summarise the scene in which she’s just appeared alongside a current, a previous and a yet-to-be-announced “dark” Doctor (Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt respectively). Not to mention Companion, Jenna Coleman (who’s dropped the Louise) and a Zygon. If it seems a tad confusing, then that’s because it is.
“So, I’m taking everyone to a Zygon nest to show them what’s happening,” the former Gavin and Stacey actress continues. “And I was standing there thinking, I’m in the middle of a baddie’s nest in Doctor Who, I’ve spent my childhood watching people acting that and I’m standing next to one, possibly being one myself. I’m thinking, I’m being a baddie and this is really, really good.”
We’re sitting in a glorified gazebo in what the map describes as the Lower Bailey of Chepstow Castle, a propane gas heater, attempting unequally to compete with an icy April wind whipping in off the nearby River Wye and the one-off Doctor Who special, The Day of the Doctor, commissioned to commemorate the programme’s 50th anniversary is proceeding slowly and, it must be said, very coldly.
Close by, Matt Smith and David Tennant both swaddled in enormous, matching, light-blue parkas are deep in conversation as two hair and make-up women apply various sprays and powders while generally – apologies if this is a little technical – faffing about.
Meanwhile, if it’s possible for a man in a giant red rubber suit with barely visible eyes to look wistful, then Aidan Cook is doing just that as he stands next to Smith and Tennant. For one thing, his scaly features are way past the help of any make-up artist (besides which he is manifestly not famous and therefore remains unfaffed) and although it’s cold enough to freeze the zygonads off a Zygon, he is stoically standing in the rubber suit into which he was sewn between the hours of 5.30 and 8.30 this morning without so much as a pac-a-mac for protection. They clearly breed them tough on the planet Zygor.
Presently, John Hurt makes his appearance although he’s heard sometime before he’s seen. Taking his time descending from the Marten’s tower which has been pressed into service as the site of the Zygon’s nest, Hurt shuffles into the Lower Bailey, but his hacking cough precedes him by several seconds. At this point in the year, his presence as the dark Doctor is still under wraps, as is the fact that Matt Smith will be bowing out at Christmas. Hurt seems unimpressed by the production team’s desire to keep a lid on it.
“It’s bound to leak. Even Steven Spielberg can’t keep things quiet,” he manages between bursts of forty-a-day, lung-evacuating throat-clearing.
Despite this scepticism, it should be said that Hurt is still splendidly evasive when the line of questioning becomes uncomfortable. When asked if he’s ever been approached to play the Doctor before, he replies, “Not to my knowledge. It has escaped me.” He does a good impression of looking convincingly forgetful, but Joanna Page testifies that he’s been giving her a detailed explanation of his theory that Elizabeth I was no Virgin Queen, so the absent-mindedness may be something of a well-constructed ruse.
This 75-minute episode is being shot in 3D which will doubtless be a treat and a headache in equal measure for Doctor Who viewers. It is clearly, however, a source of unadulterated delight for the techheads in the crew, all clad – as all crews always are – in black North Face gear, as it gives them even more scope as they compete to utter the most impenetrable jargon. Suddenly, we have a clear winner.
“Pump the pancakes five per cent.”
Pancake pumping complete and after the briefest of breaks, the cast are back up the tower into the Zygon nest and Scene 245 Take 2 is underway. Ish.
“Can Matt straighten his bow tie,” asks a first or possibly second assistant director. The bow tie now in a sufficiently horizontal position, the cast are all asked to look at a picture. Joanna Page and David Tennant break off from an animated discussion about the latest series of Mad Men to get into character.
“That’s the dot I’m looking at right next to the camera,” enquires Jenna Coleman in search of confirmation.
Compared with the normal standards of secrecy associated with the Doctor Who PR machine, which can generally give North Korea on a taciturn day, a run for its money, there is something curiously carefree about today’s shoot. Perhaps the stated aim of series producer, Marus Wilson that the show is going to be “a love letter to the fans” has permeated proceedings a little.
Chepstow Castle remains open to the public, so as the day progresses a steady stream of visitors, all armed with smart phones, makes its way up the hill to the well-preserved fortifications. A helicopter hovers overhead for large periods of the afternoon.
Moreover, as the scene unfolds, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a fair chunk of dialogue.
“It’s not a picture,” declares Matt Smith’s Doctor when shooting finally starts. “It’s a stasis cube. Forget I said, Cup-a-soup.”
“I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” declares Joanna Page’s Elizabeth a few lines later, “but at the time so did the Zygon.”
Later she adds enigmatically, “My twin is in the forest.”
It is, admittedly, only a snippet of dialogue in a 75-minute episode, but in the hands of certain Whovians enough material to provide several possible episode synopses.
After a couple more takes, Joanna Page is not required and makes her way down the tower. It’s her first job since having her daughter, Eva, eight weeks earlier and having planned not to work for a year, the job has taken her slightly by surprise.
“It’s mental,” she laughs. “But when you get the phone call to be in the 50th Anniversary, you’re like Oh my God, I’ve got to. Especially as I think I must be the only Welsh actress who’s never been in Doctor Who. I was dying to be in it. I’ve watched Doctor Who for years, I used to hide behind the sofa because of the Daleks. I couldn’t walk through Madame Tussaud’s with my parents because there was a big Dalek there. And the Zygon keeps making me jump because he is genuinely frightening.”
While her ex-Emmerdale husband, James Thornton looks after Eva in the trailer, Page is clearly enthralled by almost every aspect of the shoot.
“The costume is absolutely fantastic,” she enthuses. “It’s so beautiful. And I love wearing the wig. And also wearing a wig when you have an eight-week-old baby is brilliant because you don’t have to shower in the morning, you just stick the wig on. I was on top of a mountain in Neath the other day and Eva actually stopped filming, it had to go on hold. It was freezing cold, the wind was blowing, I was sitting in the back of a car, dressed as Elizabeth I, breastfeeding. And I thought to myself, that’s girl power.”
Her only concern at the moment seems to be that her Elizabeth might be displaying an accent hailing from slightly west of the Severn bridge, but even this is not viewed as an insurmountable problem.
“I was talking to John [Hurt],” she explains, “and he was saying that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t talk with an accent like his, that her accent wouldn’t be what we expect. So, I’m doing my version of Queen Elizabeth who’s English but she might have a little Welsh twang.”
As a newcomer to the series Joanna Page hasn’t yet absorbed the regular cast’s MI5 level of secrecy and her natural ebullience cannot be reined in for long. Asked where she would take the Tardis if she could go anywhere in the last 50 years, she subverts the question.
“I’d like to go back further to the court of Henry VIII,” she laughs. “I know Elizabeth’s his daughter, but I’d like to be one of his ladies-in-waiting and see if he’d want to ravish me.
“But if it had to be in the last 50 years,” she continues, “I’d go back to the 60s the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and being a hippy. I’d be torn between those two options, either be ravished by the Rolling Stones or ravished by Henry VIII.”
It’s left to the old pros, Smith and Tennant to restore some kind of order with a masterclass in plausible deniability. Asked which other Doctors they think are likely to feature, Tennant offers a textbook rebuttal.
“We can’t say,” he smiles, “but there are two very happy Doctors on set and in the story.”
It’s true. They do look to be having a good time. As they sit next to each other in Camp Gazebo, their giant light-blue parkas are joined at the hip to make a duvet of bonhomie.
“It’s a celebration that looks back and forward I think,” adds Smith with a well-trained observation that gives nothing away.
A Sphinx-like expression plays across his lips for now, but the indicators suggest that come broadcast date when memories of this Siberian shoot have faded, he, and Doctor Who’s audience, will be smiling broadly.
Don’t miss a thing with our Doctor Who 50th anniversary guide to what’s on TV and radio