Here’s Russell T. Davies talking to Mark Lawson about the television industry in general, the phone-in scandals in particular, and – with just a few hours to go until transmission of ‘The End of Time’ part 2 – why he likes writing happy endings…
Q: According to a national newspaper, you’re the fifteenth most powerful person in British broadcasting. Is that how it feels to you?
A: (laughs) No. I don’t wake up thinking ‘How do I murder 14 people?’, and that list will be published again next year and I’ll be gone. It’ll be full of new media people and things like that. It’s nice, it’s a nice recognition of the work we do here in Cardiff, but it means nothing. If I go and pitch a new idea to the BBC or ITV they’ll say ‘Is it any good?’, I really don’t think they’ll sit there and say ‘It’s written by Russell T. Davies, we must make it’. Although it’d be nice if they did!
Q: You’ve ended up with an unusual amount of power for a writer. This whole empire, you’ve got ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Torchwood’, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, you’re presiding over it all. That doesn’t usually happen to writers.
A: No, but it should. It’s that sort of American showrunner position where you don’t just write the script, you oversee it. You employ brilliant people, but I think so much drama goes wrong because you need to fix the tone, you need to establish what the drama is, and every person who reads a script has a different version in their heads. So you need someone, and this is the producer as well, and the production team, but it needs streamlining, you need to say ‘What is this drama? What is it about?’ and I think the showrunner does that. I think the more you can get writers out of their attics and on to the set and having a say in how it’s run, I think the better a product gets. But I think it’s hard to do. I think a lot of writers like living in their attic, throwing a script at you and then going back to smoking their pipe.
Q: In another national newspaper list, you’re 14 places higher, you’re the Number 1 most influential gay man in Britain.
A: That’s more like it.
Q: Is that an accolade you welcome?
A: Not at all. They’re mad, these lists. Someone phones up and says ‘Have you seen this list? You’re on it’, and you laugh for five minutes. They printed a terrible photo of me, and that was far more important to me. If you’re a fifteen-year-old gay boy sitting in school and you might feel very alone, and you might be wondering what to do with your life, I think when gay people are visible – in whatever media, I don’t just mean telly – then it’s about visibility. I hate using the phrase ‘role model’, but it’s about you thinking ‘I can do that’. Anyone can do these jobs, they’re available to straight people and gay people alike.
Q: Going back to your early work, ‘Century Falls’ and ‘Dark Season’, and then on to ‘Doctor Who’, the world almost ends an awful number of times. There is this apocalyptic strain in your work. I was wondering where that came from?
A: That’s interesting. I think partly because with drama, it’s a created world, and once you’ve created a world you can end it. Whereas the real world just keeps going. I do think everyone dies in the end. I think fiction, part of what I love about fiction is the happy ending. Happy endings, sad endings, they’re entirely imposed. I especially like writing happy endings, actually, because in the real world they don’t exist. There’s no love story that lasts, because one of them dies first. I think when people start striving for realism, when they start defining tragedy, it has a sad ending and therefore it’s good drama, I tend to think ‘Well that’s how the real world works, the real world takes care of that for you’. If it’s an artificial world that you’re shaping, you can actually push it into a happy ending, because life won’t do it for you.
Q: Looking at the state of TV, TV has had to apologise to the public on a number of occasions recently. It’s had to apologise to the Queen, to the public. Fraudulent phone-ins, fake competitions, faulty documentaries. Is television in crisis?
A: No. There are faults, but it’s so hard to have an intelligent debate about this, especially the phone line stuff. There are faults, but it’s much more interesting than fraud. It’s fascinating how endemic it became. Everyone knew: viewers and programme-makers alike were complicit in what happened. I knew what was going on with those phone lines. I think a lot of people knew.
Q: But did they? People say now that if they knew how it worked, they’d never have phoned in.
A: I think there’s a very sophisticated level on which people watch television. They sit there and watch a live show and they go ‘That’s not live’. They’re part of the game. And you can still phone in and, well, it was fraud then, if they were claiming to be live, but you think the phone line’s still active, you can still enter a competition even on a pre-recorded show, which sometimes is possible. It’s very complicated. It’s not as simple as saying that television is evil and viewers are stupid. But the whole situation is very mixed up, and woven into where television is heading, and where it’s going. So I think these simple headlines – which are being written in the BBC as well – are shameful, actually. I think the way we’re dealing with it is as bad as the problem itself.
Q: Within the BBC, staff are being sent on a course to tell them how to tell the truth.
A: Am I?
Q: You may get the e-mail.
A: I’d love to. But you can’t even talk about this stuff as if it’s real. You take the moral high ground, you take the moral low ground. Frankly, if you look at something like a researcher on ‘Blue Peter’ who makes a mistake on a live transmission, I think what they did was very clever. You’re not allowed to say that, it’s a forbidden sentence. If you’ve ever worked on a live show, that’s hard work, it’s pure adrenalin, some very quick thinking was made there, it was the wrong decision, everyone makes the wrong decision under pressure occasionally, that’s entirely allowable. But we’re not allowed to say that.
Q: So it’s clever to come up with a fake guest?
A: Brilliant! Live?!? When the clock is ticking, and someone is shouting in your ear saying ‘We’ve got five minutes to fill, we’ve got no winner’, and there’s a kid, let’s say he’s the winner! Brilliant! Promote that person, I say. I’m not saying these mistakes should have happened, but the way we talk about them is like a Victorian nanny. And none of these conversations actually blame the people who put the whole structure in place, the whole system. That person on the studio floor who makes a mistake is under-paid and over-worked and would probably be sitting in the office until midnight that night to get the show ready – no wonder mistakes are made!