In 2013 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, I conducted a series of interviews with some of the show’s most interesting figures. Ten years on, to celebrate 60 years of the show, I’ll be publishing a new interview each month with a figure from Doctor Who’s long history. First up in the series, I spoke to Stephen Wyatt about Paradise Towers and The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and his wider career including his excellent new collection of short stories which you can buy here.
Hello Stephen, thank you for agreeing to this interview. The first question I’d like to ask is when did you first know you wanted to become a writer?
Well, when I was a kid, I filled notebook after notebook with plays and stories. But I think the decision to be a professional writer and try to earn my living that way only came in 1977 when I returned to London.
When you first began your career, you worked as a lecturer before becoming a playwright. Did you enjoy your time as a lecturer? Did it influence your work at all?
I enjoyed the teaching but I was terrible with meetings. I don’t think being a lecturer affected my writing but the time I had as an undergraduate and research student when I wrote, acted and directed quite a lot, undoubtedly did.
You’ve adapted several classic novels, The Talented Mr Ripley, Vanity Fair, The History of Tom Jones and many other for radio. Is your approach to adapting a novel for radio any different from when you are writing an original piece?
Yes and no. As I wrote in the book on radio drama I co-authored with Claire Grove for Nick Hern Books: “You need to know a book well before you start a dramatisation, You need to break down its plot into various stages so you understand what is and is not important. I always do a chapter-by-chapter summary to let me see how the book is set out… But, basically, at the end, you’re still your own storyteller… Others may do it differently but I try to write a dramatisation as if it was my own story and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
How did you first become involved with writing for Doctor Who?
I sent John Nathan-Turner the script of my tv play Claws. He liked it and passed it to Andrew Cartmel who had just been appointed script editor and he also liked it so we went from there.
Your first script, the iconic Paradise Towers, deals with the façade of luxury living – given the 1980s are often associated with greed and economic inequality, how important did you think it was that Doctor Who told a story that exposed how hollow some of the luxury real estate that was being sold at the time way and how disconnected it was from many people’s actual lives?
I don’t really agree that Paradise Towers is about luxury real estate. It’s much more about the council estates which were being built in the 60s and 70s with little consideration for the people who were being moved into them. In my old home in Walworth, I lived five minutes from the largest housing estate in Europe so that was what I was thinking of.
Paradise Towers is much more grounded than the previous story Time and The Rani – was it important to you that your Doctor Who story was more grounded?
I’ve never been very interested in the mythology of Dr Who, I’ve always loved the freedom it gives to create whole imaginative worlds which don’t necessarily bother about Time Lords, Gallifrey etc. Both Andrew and I felt Dr Who had become too inward-looking so we wanted to create stories which had at least some relation to what was happening in the world around us.
Richard Briers gives a very memorable performance in Paradise Towers – what did you think of his portrayal of The Chief Caretaker?
Very funny, very accomplished. His handling of the Part One cliff-hanger is brilliant. To be honest, I’d conceived a darker, more sinister figure and my suggestion for the role had been T.P.McKenna who subsequently played Captain Cook in Greatest Show.
Paradise Towers was of course also Sylvester McCoy’s second broadcast story – how did it feel to write for a new Doctor? To what extent did you have an idea about what kind of Doctor McCoy would be?
When I started writing, Sylvester hadn’t even been cast so much of it was written before he came on board. I knew about Sylvester’s stage work but it was really only with Greatest Show that I created a Doctor story specifically for him.
The Greatest Show in The Galaxy is the other iconic story you wrote for Doctor Who – how did that script come about?
John and Andrew (and the BBC powers that be) had all liked Paradise Towers so I was commissioned to write another story before PT even went out.
Whizz Kid in the story is a parody of especially obsessive Doctor Who fans – how did you think the viewing audience would react to seeing him in the story? Did you think any of those fans would see that he was intended as a parody of them?
I’d be amazed if they didn’t. The Whizzkid was a character left over from an earlier version of GS which was about computer games and I just decided at a very late stage when we still needed another competitor that it would be a fun thing to do. I think most (but not all) fans took it in good spirit. It’s only a very small part of the story!
The cliffhanger to Part Three of The Greatest Show in The Galaxy is one of the best of the era – how important did you feel it was to ensure that the cliffhanger and all the other cliffhangers you wrote were especially impactful for the audience? Did you find writing the cliffhangers in your stories difficult or easy?
Well, you always did your best to have a good cliff hanger but inevitably some (PT Ep One and GS Ep 3) turn out to be more effective than others. It’s tricky because the cliff-hanger has to grow out of the unfolding drama, you can’t just plonk down a trick ending. With Mags, all the signs were there…
The Gods of Ragnarok in the story have subsequently appeared in different spin off media – how do you feel to have created villains that has been reused several times in Doctor Who media?
I didn’t know they had been. But I have licensed Big Finish to do stories for Jessica as Mags the Werewolf, Cutaway Comics to do a comic book follow-up to PT Paradise Found by Sean Mason and Obverse Books to do a short story collection called Build High for Happiness which contains stories by a number of writers as well as me. I’m rather flattered people are still interested and I’m happy for them to play with my toys.
The Greatest Show in The Galaxy uses the strange, surreal nature of the circus particularly effectively – do you think Doctor Who works particularly well when stories are set in closed, almost claustrophobic settings which have The Doctor backed against the corner?
Well, there are many ways to tell Dr Who story but certainly closed settings work for me both as a writer and audience member. Robert Holmes’ The Ark in Space is a fine example.
Why do you think clowns make for such effective monsters in drama?
Because although you know there’s a human behind the smiling comic mask you can never really tell what they’re feeling.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you weren’t especially interested in exploring the background of The Doctor or the mythology around Gallifrey when writing your contributions to the series – do you think those kind of stories, the ones that spend a great deal of time focussing on everything to do with the Time Lords or Gallifrey are of more interest to hardcore fans than most viewers and as such the general public can feel disengaged when watching those stories?
Yes, I do think that’s a danger. It happened, for example, with Trial of a Time Lord. But that’s not to say that good writers can’t do something intriguing and interesting with the Doctor Who mythology. The same is true of the Daleks. I wouldn’t know where to start with a Dalek story but both Ben Aaronovitch and Rob Shearman have done really imaginative things with them.
When adapting your stories for the Doctor Who Target novelisation series, did you feel that you had greater freedom to describe the worlds you had created without having to rely on the then somewhat limited budget of Doctor Who to bring your stories to life?
My Target stories were written soon after I’d finished the scripts so I didn’t add a lot to them. But I did restore things that had been cut (usually for time) and in the case of PT move some of the characters, particularly Pex, closer to my original concept.
When you wrote The Psychic Circus for Big Finish, the sequel and prequel to The Greatest Show in The Galaxy, how did it feel to return to the world you had created for the show decades before?
Strange. It was thirty years since I’d written anything for Who. But once I started writing I began to settle back in.
The Master of course features in The Psychic Circus. Did you enjoy writing lines for such an iconic Doctor Who character?
Not really. It was part of the deal with Big Finish that I had to include him and to be honest, I needed help from my script editor, Matt Fitton, to use him confidently as part of my story.
Your collection of short stories, monologues and other pieces of your work entitled Wallscrawler and Other Stories is a fascinating collection. Could you explain how the book came about and why you decided to write the original stories for it?
Well, there are six Dr Who stories inspired by both PT and GS, five of which are in print for the first time. Three of them were commissioned by Cutaway Comics as an accompaniment to their PT sequel though they’ve yet to be recorded while the GS were specially written. It was good fun to revisit the characters and find new ways into their stories. Bin Liner it turns out was originally christened Rosemary. Then during lockdown, I read my way through the Old Testament (I skipped all the “begats” though) and discovered some rather weird and wonderful Bible stories which aren’t very often mentioned so I wrote six of them up and called them Prophets of Doom. The final six stories I wrote for Radio 4 where they were read by the likes of Bernard Cribbins, Dora Bryan and Sian Phillips.
Is there a particular monologue or story from Wallscrawler that you are most proud of?
Difficult. I very much enjoyed writing the title story The Wallscrawler which is told from the point of view of a Blue Kang so I had to rediscover all my Kang speak and invent some new Kang phrases to go with it. And then there’s Sodom for Gomorrah We Die where a merchant who used to visit Sodom on business refuses to accept the “official” explanation for what happened. But maybe just now my favourite is a story I wrote for Sian Phillips called The Seven Ages of Women about a woman working as an attendant in a provincial art gallery who becomes obsessed with the painting of the title.
Do you think, if asked, you would write for Doctor Who again? And if so, is there another story that you have in the back of your mind that you think would make for an exciting Doctor Who TV story?
I don’t have any ideas for Who at the moment but in the very unlikely event of Russell T. Davies knocking on my door, I’m sure I’d suddenly come up with something.
Thank you for this interview, Stephen, my final question is, what future projects have you got lined up? What are you working on at the moment that have yet to be released?
Well, Me and Him and Who my audio drama for AUK about John Nathan-Turner and his partner Gary Downie came out in a limited edition in December but is going to be available for download from AUK very soon. Meanwhile I’m in the waiting game on a theatre commission, a radio proposal and a book project but their fate is still in the lap of the gods.
With thanks again to Stephen Wyatt. You can purchase Wallscrawler and Other Stories now for all good online retailers.
What a fascinating interview. Always liked Paradise Towers, think it’s a really underrated story from this era of Classic Who. I recall 2013’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who so well, it was a lovely time, halcyon days indeed. 🙂
I’m glad you like it Paul!