How we made Class: team behind Doctor Who spin-off reflect on cancellation and series 2 plans

The cast and crew of Class on making a Doctor Who spin-off, their untimely cancellation, and series two plans for a Weeping Angel civil war.

Doctor Who

By: Alex Moreland

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“I loved every minute of it,” says Patrick Ness of his Doctor Who spin-off Class. “I’d be doing it now if they’d let me.”

Following a group of students at Coal Hill school, Class was Doctor Who’s third spin-off since its 2005 revival. With a celebrated young adult author at the helm, Class was a series in the same vein as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, always bursting with ideas and deeply invested in its characters. After the success of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, Class seemed set to reach similar heights – until it didn’t.

Five years since the show was first released on October 22nd 2016, creator Patrick Ness, director Ed Bazalgette, and stars Greg Austin, Sophie Hopkins, and Jordan Renzo look back on Class – reflecting on its complicated relationship with Doctor Who, their experiences making the show, its untimely cancellation, and the series two episodes we never saw. 

Class began life when Patrick Ness was asked to write for Doctor Who. “It was a bit unexpected,” he remembers. “[The BBC] approached me to see if I’d be interested in writing episodes of Doctor Who, but I declined, feeling like I really wanted to work on my own creations at that point. To my surprise, they said, ‘Well, we’ve got this other idea…’”

“They had been inspired by The Caretaker, where the Doctor was undercover at Coal Hill. Their first idea was to have another caretaker-type character,” Ness continues. “I remember they’d mentioned Frank Skinner as a possible idea – but I said, with the greatest respect to Frank Skinner, if you do that in a show for teens, what you’ve got is a bunch of teens waiting around for an adult to take action.”

“I argued that you’d have to get it away from what Sarah Jane Adventures did so beautifully and make it for older teens, who are all about having their own agency and making their own choices. In other words, they’re the centre of the show, not the authority character.”

“They liked that idea, and my pitch for the show came together really fast” says Ness. “It’s how I knew it was working, ideas came fast and furious. Which they don’t always.”

Ed Bazalgette – who had recently directed Doctor Who series nine episodes The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived – soon joined the series as lead director.

“On [Doctor Who] I was working with [Class producer] Derek Ritchie. We had a good rapport and I really enjoyed working with Derek: he has great instincts, insightful and supportive,” explains Bazalgette. “Later in the year there was a call from [executive producer] Brian Minchin and we started talking Class. Over Christmas I read the first script and also A Monster Calls and More Than This to get more of a sense of Patrick’s writing.”

Class
Writer and screenwriter Patrick Ness (Getty)

Bazalgette directed the first three episodes of Class – For Tonight We Might Die, The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, and Nightvisiting – and was heavily involved in the initial stages of production. “As lead director you come in and become an integral part of setting up the series,” he explains. “Tone, style, locations, feeding back on scripts, casting – you’re immersed in the process.”

“Casting is always such an important process,” continues Bazalgette. “First and foremost, you’re deciding who will play your characters but there’s so much more to it. You’re hearing scenes out loud often for the first time, you’re getting all these nuances in the way scenes are performed, and it’s exciting seeing the script start coming off the page. Then there’s the chemistry between the characters to be considered. Sophie, Vivian, Greg and Fady all really shone out and worked well together.”

“I was sent initially one scene to audition with,” explains Sophie Hopkins, who played April O’Neill, an ordinary student thrown into an extraordinary world. “There had been a lot of hush-hush around the project so at that time they weren’t giving much away!”

“The scene they sent me was from the first episode, where April wants to ask Charlie to the prom and is too shy to ask directly,” she continues. “Both characters are so sweet and unaware, and simultaneously manage to be encouraging and caring for each other without having a clue what’s going on! I fell in love with the two of them immediately.”

“What drew me to the script initially was the wonderful relationship between Quill and Charlie,” says Jordan Renzo, who played Matteusz Andrzejewski, very much the moral centre of the group. “I auditioned three times. First for Matteusz, then Charlie, and then finally in the room with everyone for Matteusz again.”

“I remember thinking ‘if this is the last time you speak these lines, go in and enjoy yourself’,” he continues. “It passed in a blur and next thing I know my agent called me with the offer.”

Doctor Who spin-off Class
Greg Austin and Katherine Kelly in Doctor Who spin-off Class (BBC)

“I was out in Los Angeles for pilot season when the final recall for Class came through,” remembers Greg Austin, who played alien prince in exile Charlie Smith, “so I had to make a wager (at a time when I had very little money to play with) and buy an expensive, last-minute flight back to London.”

“I almost didn’t go, but ultimately took the risk because of how interesting the role was,” he continues. “The allure of working with Patrick Ness and forever holding a place within the Whoniverse was enough for me to gamble on the flight, and boy, did it pay off.”

How did they each feel, stepping into a Doctor Who spin-off?

“It was just a tremendous privilege,” says Renzo. “Of course, there is pressure there, but also pride. It all seemed so overwhelming at first that I didn’t have a chance for any expectations, just excitement.”

“I was really excited to be part of a Doctor Who show,” agrees Hopkins. “I’d watched it for years and always had fond memories of watching the show with family and friends – we love a Christmas special! However [it was] only when we started filming and groups of supportive Whovians started showing up outside the studio did I realise the enormity of it all!”

“I’d seen every bit of the post-2005 Doctor Who,” says Ness. “I was a huge fan, and a slightly different fan in that – being raised in America – I had no childhood connection with the original series, I came to that part later. I got to see it without memories or nostalgia fighting with the reboot (as all Americans do when we watch Star Trek).”

“I always said that with Doctor Who, you’re not actually engaging with the older series,” he continues “you’re engaging with people’s memories of the older series, which is a different thing, a more challenging thing. But it’s also what makes it such a great creative puzzle. And the reboot is so rich and deep and full of challenges and contradictions, it’s an enormously rewarding place to set stories with real moral questions and grey areas. I loved it.”

Doctor Who
Peter Capaldi with Katherine Kelly during Class’ first episode (BBC)

“Everything revolved around Doctor Who,” says Austin. “The show’s legacy was looming over us the entire time. We literally had Peter Capaldi filming season 10 next door to us, not to mention getting to work with him briefly in episode one. It honestly felt quite imposing having the show’s magnitude following us everywhere. It was both a blessing, and a curse.”

Of course, Class was influenced by much more than just Doctor Who, as Bazalgette explains. “We viewed constantly through prep and built up a set of references. Some of the ones that stand out are Donnie Darko, The Thing, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Super 8, and contemporary horror movies such as The Babadook [and] It Follows.

“While [Class] came from the Doctor Who world, we all wanted it to have its own identity. I worked closely with the late and very wonderful designer Michael Pickwoad to establish that look. Michael had such a huge design influence on Doctor Who while he was on the show and it was such a pleasure working with him on Class.”

“The key for us was that although set in London and shot in Cardiff, we didn’t want to tie it down to one specific geographical location,” continues Bazalgette. “The exterior school was glass, steel, very modern, could be found in any number of cities [while] the interior school was influenced by that US High School look from innumerable movies and TV shows.”

Given some of those influences, it’s notable perhaps that Class was more popular in America. “I’ve always wondered if that’s because most American shows set in schools are about finding yourself and having relationships and figuring out who you’re going to turn into,” says Ness, “whereas most British shows set in schools are basically about, ‘Isn’t school s***?’”

“The British remember their school days with horror and misery, which I get,” he continues. “But maybe we forget it’s also the place where you make the most important first friendships and decisions and choices in your life. It’s why it’s such a compelling place.”

Greg Austin (Charlie Smith) and Sophie Hopkins (April Maclean) 3
Greg Austin (Charlie Smith) and Sophie Hopkins (April Maclean) recording for Big Finish stories of Class
Big Finish

For the younger cast, Class represented a big step up in terms of their career – and, appropriately, something of a learning experience too.

“It was totally new to me to work with the SFX and green screen,” says Hopkins, “which wasn’t without its challenges. I remember trying to pull myself together and remain looking horribly frightened of a fearsome monster [that was actually] a tennis ball on a stick, or alternatively a person in an ill-fitting, skintight in the wrong places Kermit-the-Frog-greenscreen suit… actually, the latter does sound pretty terrifying, doesn’t it?”

“Detained was a unique filming experience that I haven’t encountered before or since,” remembers Austin. “It was a bottle episode, and took place entirely in one location. We were in that blacked-out classroom for almost three weeks, doing high intensity, emotionally charged stuff; screaming, crying, fearing for our lives – you know how it goes. It was in that experience that I finally arrived at the realisation that I can do this. I can be an actor. It was a pretty big shift for me.”

“Our relationships were so important,” says Hopkins. “I think it shows on screen how much we all loved each other! They’re a great group of people, we balance each other out in the right ways and at the time we were all a really tight-knit group. Totally inseparable and it was a very happy set.”

“Most of my [scenes were] with Fady, who was a delight to spend time with. Honestly, he looks upon the world and each person he meets with a kindness, humour and excitement that’s so very endearing.”

Doctor Who
Katherine Kelly, Pooky Quesnel, Greg Austin and Jordan Renzo in Class series 1 (BBC)

“Being the oldest of the five of us, I think I was the serious one in the group,” she continues. “If I were to go back in time, I’d have let go a bit more and stopped caring so much about what people thought. But then, maybe I’d taken a little bit of April home with me!”

“Through Class I gained some friends for life,” says Renzo. “We were a wonderfully tight-knit group. Every night after shooting we would grab dinner, shoot the breeze. I have nothing but love and respect for everyone who worked on Class.”

“I’ve never had the kind of relationships on set as I had with Class,” says Austin. “For us ‘kids’ it was our first time having the weight of a show entirely on us, and we very much looked up to Katherine Kelly as an experienced and respected actor. Having worked with her before on Mr. Selfridge, it was a real moment of growth getting to reframe our relationship on a new set, and I’m genuinely so grateful for all her guidance and insight, she’s truly wonderful.”

After months of production, it was time for Class to begin – launching with a special premiere event in Cardiff. “It was a joy getting to present all our hard work and have it so readily appreciated by everyone at the premiere,” remembers Austin. “It was a moment of real hope, excitement and payoff.”

Class concluded its BBC Three run with The Lost, which saw a final confrontation between the Coal Hill students and the Shadowkin – and featured the cliffhanger appearance of a Weeping Angel.

After that, the series remained in limbo: its BBC One airing scheduled the following January and given a Monday night graveyard slot, its BBC America airing held to coincide with Doctor Who series 10 in April. Though the series was critically acclaimed, news of a return never arrived. When did they first start to realise that Class hadn’t taken off as they might’ve hoped?

“There were alarm bells ringing for me fairly early on,” says Hopkins. “I remember being in Toronto and there being big Class billboards and Class bus stops, regular ads on TV for the show as well, but there was none of that here that I saw.”

“We were certain a season two was inevitable,” admits Austin. “When it didn’t happen, I was honestly devastated. I can’t remember exactly when it became apparent, but we were all a bit blindsided. We all dearly loved the show, and would have given anything to have it continue.”

“Obviously it was disappointing we didn’t get a second series,” says Renzo. “It felt like we just started to find our feet as a show and firing on all cylinders, but such is life.”

In June 2017, Patrick Ness tweeted to announce his own departure from the show, noting they’d need to be filming already to return before 2019. Did he know at that point that a second series wouldn’t happen?

“Oh, it was obvious [before the American broadcast],” says Ness. “Plus, you just can’t wait that long with a young cast who are supposed to look like high school students. I mean, Greg Austin is now playing a Nazi assassin on Hunters, so it’s not like he was going to be plausibly 17 for much longer.”

News finally came in September 2017. Speaking at a press event, BBC Three Controller Damien Kavanagh said “[Class] just didn’t really land for us,” confirming the series wouldn’t return.

“I do wish it was handled with more grace,” Hopkins says. “It’s a shame there was no official announcement or that the cast and Patrick weren’t told about the cancellation prior. It turned out the ‘announcement of cancellation’ was just a passing comment from someone at the BBC at some Q&A event: we then all found out via Twitter. It wasn’t my favourite.”

Hopkins, Ness, and Austin each highlight BBC Three’s move online (a choice since overturned, with the channel set to return to linear television in January 2022) as what ultimately doomed the show.

“I think a lot of people thought BBC Three had disappeared altogether,” says Hopkins. “By the time it aired on terrestrial TV, the episodes were shown as a double bill really late in the evening, therefore missing our target young adult audience completely. It was really weird.”

“I think the BBC expected and relied on the magnitude of the parent show to carry the promotion of Class,” adds Austin as well, noting that the BBC “didn’t really understand” how to package Class or BBC Three itself. “It was frustrating, but hey, that’s business.”

“I can see what they tried to do: use Class to help launch what turned out to be an ill-fated and abortive decision to put BBC Three entirely streaming on iPlayer,” says Ness. “They did some amazing things, but iPlayer isn’t maybe your sexiest destination for a teenager looking for a show to call their own.”

“Still,” he says, “I can’t blame them for trying. Everyone’s a genius in hindsight.”

Doctor Who
The Class main cast (minus Katherine Kelly) L-R Vivian Oparah, Sophie Hopkins, Greg Austin and Fady Elsayed (BBC)

What might a second series have looked like, had things unfolded differently?

“The theme of series two was going to be ‘deals with the devil’. What does it cost you to save what you love if you have to do something extremely compromising to your morals?” explains Ness. “I was really looking forward to that. I had a storyline where current day Charlie met a future Charlie who’d essentially lost his soul to save Matteusz. Could that timeline be changed? Would you do it all over again if you saw the cost?”

In the final episode, April seemingly died, before waking up in the body of a Shadowkin. The solution to that cliffhanger tied into the same themes, explains Hopkins. “April [would] get her body back but at a price. A deal is made with The Governors who step in to switch my body back.”

A second series would’ve introduced new writers too, says Ness, revealing he asked authors Juno Dawson (Meat Market), Derek Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant), and Kim Curran (Slay) to contribute episodes.

“I ended up pitching ten [ideas],” remembers Kim Curran. “Of those ten, we were all most excited by one called Time Capsule. It would have seen the whole gang blasted back in time to the 90s by the Weeping Angels, their only hope of getting [home] a time capsule they knew would be dug up at Coal Hill 30 years later. It was going to be, in the immortal words of the Doctor, timey-wimey.”

“My episode was going to revolve around fame, the Internet, and the backlash that’s sure to follow,” explains Landy. “In a way, it was about so-called ‘fan entitlement’ — that curious sense of ownership some people develop with regards to entertainment they love. I had a vague plan on how best to execute the idea, but never got the chance to nail anything down.”

“Patrick and I first talked, as we often do, over burgers in London,” writes Juno Dawson. “He was keen to get YA writers into the show. TV is really hard to break into and he wanted to knock down some walls for us. My episode was centred on Vivian’s character [Tanya] and had a Ferris Bueller vibe in that it saw her taking a day out of her life to try being someone else. We’d talked about her being pansexual or bi too.”

Doctor Who – Weeping Angels
Doctor Who – Weeping Angels

When Ness announced his departure, he offered a few details about his future plans – teasing a visit to the Weeping Angel home planet, and the suggestion of a Weeping Angel civil war brewing. Can he elaborate on that now?

“What I love about the Weeping Angels is what I love about certain kinds of sci-fi: they’re aliens who are really alien, as in not at all like us, not even sharing the same frames of reference,” explains Ness. “I mean, I played with the idea a little bit in the first season with the flower petal invasion: what if aliens were something we couldn’t even argue with, what if they and their motives were entirely inexplicable?”

“I’d envisioned the civil war and the planet like that,” Ness continues. “Something only comprehensible in a small way, with so much of it remaining a mystery, reminding us that there are paths we’re just never going to understand.”

Unfortunately, none of that was to be. While it enjoyed a brief revival at Big Finish (“Feels like my characters get more chances to breathe and live. What a great thing,” says Ness), Class on television exists as eight episodes only. How do they each feel about it now?

“I’m really proud of the show,” says Bazalgette. “It was a great one off, the characters were great, the look and feel continued to grow throughout the series and it was a joy to work with such a talented cast and crew. It’s so good to see how all the cast have continued to develop and work on so many great shows.”

“I’m really proud of this show in general. It stands as a unique little island of an experiment, and I think it stands firm on its own two feet, outside of the magnitude of Doctor Who,” says Austin.

Sophie Hopkins, Jordan Renzo, Fady Elsayed, Vivian Oparah and Greg Austin in Class (BBC)
Sophie Hopkins, Jordan Renzo, Fady Elsayed, Vivian Oparah and Greg Austin in Class (BBC)

“If I had to pick something specific though, I’m really proud of our handling of homosexuality on screen,” he continues. “Getting to explore that with Charlie in a grounded and truthful way, in amongst all the other craziness happening on screen, was awesome.”

“[Matteusz] made me a better person without a doubt,” declares Renzo. “Matteusz had this valour and honesty to him that was so refreshing – he never made a selfish or thoughtless decision.”

“[I’m most proud of] Matteusz and Charlie’s relationship. We spent many hours discussing it to make it as truthful as possible in the midst of all hell breaking loose every episode.”

“I’m very proud of the relationship of Charlie and Matteusz, its matter-of-factness, its sincerity, its hotness,” agrees Ness. “I’m proud of putting a Sikh teenager on British sci-fi TV, too! There’s a whole online community of Sikhs who watch out for Sikh representation, and they were just brilliant.”

“In my opinion, Patrick Ness’s scripts and ambition for the show was ahead of its time and bursting with young, diverse talent,” said Katherine Kelly via email, reflecting on her time as alien revolutionary/teacher Miss Quill. “I continue to be extremely proud to have been a part of it and saddened that it was never given the chance to fulfil its obvious potential.”

“I proved to myself this is what I want to do,” says Hopkins. “Nothing makes me happier than being on set and working – being there was so very rewarding, and I adored every member of cast and crew. They made that experience really special, and I’ll always hold our time filming the show close to my heart.”

“Mainly I’m proud of my actors, who are great, talented people,” continues Ness. “They did such a great job. I mean, who wouldn’t want to write for [them] forever? I’d do it.”

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All eight episodes of Class are streaming on BBC iPlayer, while Doctor Who returns on 31st October. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.