Blink of an eye

Ten years ago, I was in a Broadcasting House studio with Steven Moffat, the cast of his comedy Joking Apart and also DVD producer Craig Robins. Craig is remarkable: he became a DVD producer, he formed a company and he bought the rights to this sitcom all out of his own pocket and all because he so loves the show.

So there’s Craig, literally invested in his project, and there’s Moffat plus actors Fiona Gillies, Robert Bathurst, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and TV producer Andre Ptaszynski.

And me. At this distance I’ve not a clue why I was there: I wrote a booklet for the second season DVD and I think I must surely have been there to interview people for it. But all I remember is being a spare pair of hands: it was I who brought people up from BH reception to the studio, for instance.

I should also say that I remember having a very good time: the commentaries are funny and informative. But of course as with any recording of anything, there is a lot of hanging about. Not just for me doing nothing much, but for the commenters.

Which is why I’m telling you this now.

I can remember word for word a thing Steven Moffat said in that studio. I can’t quote him for you because while there isn’t a single syllable that I imagine he’d have a problem with, he didn’t say it to me. I wasn’t even in the room: he was in the studio and at that moment I was in the gallery so I just caught it over an open mic.

Plus, my head must surely have been focused on interviewing about Joking Apart because this was a Doctor Who comment of no use to me.

Except it’s a Doctor Who comment that has really stuck with me and which definitely did so because of what happened slightly later. Ten years ago to the month – 9 June 2007 – the Doctor Who episode Blink aired. It’s a one-hour drama that jumps out of the screen and through sheer force of vitality and energy grabs you by the neck. There’s a repeated line in the episode about how you shouldn’t blink, “don’t even blink, blink and you’re dead” and there is not one single pixel of a chance that you ever could because it’s such a compelling tale.

If you know the series, you know this episode and there’s a decent chance you think it’s at or near the best thing Doctor Who ever did. If you don’t know the series then no, sorry, you do: this is the story that introduced the Weeping Angels.

They are genuinely frightening monsters in a series that seems to have to have a new alien baddie every week. Perhaps that constant introduction of new monsters is why I’m usually disinterested in them, including when I write Doctor Who radio dramas for BBC/Big Finish. But I think I’m just automatically more interested in people than, say, tentacles.

Yet Blink is equally exquisite with its characters. Carey Mulligan stars as Sally Sparrow and she really stars in every sense: for once the guest actor outshines the Doctor. That’s no criticism of the then-Doctor, David Tennant, but rather to how he isn’t in the episode much.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but ten years ago each season of Doctor Who had to have one episode in which the Doctor doesn’t appear very much at all. It’s specifically so that the actor can be off filming a different Doctor Who episode. As I understand it, this was the sole way to get each season’s 13 episodes made in time.

Fine, only from a writing and acting perspective, this puts an enormous load on whoever is doing the Doctor-less or Doctor-lite episode. And that’s what Moffat mentioned in the studio.

He’d delivered the script to Blink and I don’t believe the episode had been filmed yet or at the very least he hadn’t seen it. So there we are, some short while before the episode airs, and I’m hearing Moffat talking about how he’d tried his best with it. The sense was that he thought it would be okay, that the show would make it well, but that it wasn’t going to be great.

That’s why the comment has stuck with me. Here’s one of the most successful and doubtlessly one of the busiest writers in British television. Here’s someone who I think has found compelling depths to the Doctor and whose writing can be magical. I don’t know how many episodes he’s written of Doctor Who, I couldn’t begin to add up those plus Joking Apart, Coupling and the rest. But by any measure, Blink is one of his finest moments.

I saw an interview recently in which he expressed mild bafflement at the praise this episode gets and I don’t know if he was being modest. Equally, when he told the Joking Apart studio that this forthcoming Blink episode wasn’t brilliant, he could’ve been just saying it.

I believed him at the time, though, and I still do. I’m just not sure why I find that lifting. I think this was a writer doing something great and not fully realising it so if someone that good writing something this delicious can’t see that, well, it’s confirmed that all writers are screaming crazy eejits and we’re in good company.

Shut up and do it

I was doing a thing in a television studio this week and – no, wait, actually, quick aside? I was the talent. I’m not used to this. Wasn’t producing anything, wasn’t writing a word, not interviewing anyone, my job was to turn up and be interviewed on a show. I was the talent. So strange.

I mean, I’ve done a lot of radio on both sides of the mic but precious little TV. It turned out that some of the other guests I was chatting with in the green room had never done any television before so I was the great wise expert, having done it once. I tried not to dispense too much wisdom. They have to learn for themselves, they have to make their own mistakes.

That way you’re looking at me now, that’s how a runner at the studio should’ve been looking at me. I was chatting with a couple of runners and got into the subject of a film one of them had made last year. She told me about how hard it had been to get the rest of her group to actually do anything and I was nodding wisely, ready to say that she’s back at university for the next year and she’s making more films, I bet those others aren’t.

“But you’re back at university for the next year and you’re making more films, I bet those others aren’t,” said Rob McLaughlin, one of the other guests. I’m not sure how I taught him so well but clearly I did. Clearly.

We talked on about how production is collaboration and part of the job is getting the right group around you. And this runner – wait, I’m not telling you her name because she’s 17 plus she’s already made more films than I have – this runner mentioned how none of her friends are into filmmaking. Some of them sounded actively against it, they had been doing that thing of saying you’re wasting your time on that, you’ll never make it, that’s rubbish.

I was really ready now to point out that no matter what you do or want to do, there are people around you who say no. Ultimately the thing I’ve learned as I near 50 is that you have to say bollocks to them and do it. They come around after you’ve done it and in fact they tend to come around whether or not you did something successfully. If you want to do something, that’s always better than not wanting to do anything and you should just do it without them.

“But I suppose if you want to do something, that’s always better than not wanting to do anything and you should just do it without them, shouldn’t you?” she said.