Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Hay Festival 2014: Steven Moffat – The Showrunner


My final talk at Hay was a discussion with Steven Moffat. If you haven’t heard of him, Moffat is best known for being at the head of two BIG BBC shows: Doctor Who, of which he is the head writer and the showrunner, and Sherlock, the brilliant, modern adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detectives stories which he co-writes and co-created with Mark Gatiss, and which kicked a previously unknown Benedict Cumberbatch into stratospheric fame. As a huge Doctor Who and Sherlock fan, I was pretty excited to hear the brain behind them both talk about his process. That said, I wasn’t sure how likeable Moffat was going to be. I’ve never seen an interview with him before but I know from his shows that he’s a tad on the misogynistic side and he’s also affectionately disliked among the fandoms for being a ‘troll’ – that is, he will happily spread lies or deny certain facts in order to keep everyone in the dark about upcoming plots for his shows. OK, that is a good thing as it ensures that the plots are as surprising as they should be, but it means you have to take EVERYTHING he says in interviews with a pinch of salt. Plus, being the head of arguably the two biggest shows on BBC right now (both of them beloved around the world, too) made me think he might have a bit of an ego. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Moffat was charming. Man, how I hate to admit it. He was remarkably cool, didn’t take himself seriously, and cracked joke after joke to keep the audience in stitches. Both Doctor Who and Sherlock have a very cheeky sense of humour so I don’t know why I found this surprising, but it’s difficult to tell with individuals in the industry and, as I said, he’s got very good reason to think of himself as a big shot. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by how down to earth he was. He talked about his career and the early shows and sitcoms he wrote as he climbed the ladder (always regretting the fact Doctor Who was off the air and he’d never have a chance to write for it – just you wait, young Moffat!). I’m also a fan of his other modern literary adaptation, Jekyll, which is low-budget and doesn’t have the same glossy feel as Sherlock but is tightly written and superbly acted by James Nesbitt, so it was nice to hear Moffat talk about his humble origins. That said, the focuses of the talk were his two big current projects. Let’s get stuck into those (and if you’re not a fan of either, you might find this blog post particularly boring, so feel free to look away now).

Doctor Who


Doctor Who was the focus of most of this talk at Hay. Moffat spoke about his early days writing for the show under the then-showrunner Russell T Davies, his boyhood dream reawakened (a shock, considering he was never 100% sure it would come back on air), and then being asked to fill Davies’ shoes after he stepped down. Apparently he was initially reluctant, but was spurred into accepting the job by his father, who sent him a picture of Moffat as a boy playing with Doctor Who memorabilia. At that point, he knew he’d forever regret it if he didn’t step in.

Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005 and the first series, with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Billie Piper playing his companion, was, in Moffat’s eyes, very ‘BBC’ – a straight talking Doctor wearing a relatively normal outfit having adventures completely based on Earth (seriously, the whole of Series 1 is set on Earth – albeit at different points in time). Moffat said the joy of Doctor Who is that it’s a show about very scary, very surreal things happening in ordinary settings, with monsters that all incorporate an element of childhood fear – a great recipe for adventure if there ever was one. I was relieved to hear that he finds daleks as ridiculous as I do (I mean, come on, they’re moving dustbins!); he is particularly amused by the fact they have sink plungers for hands, as if they’ll find time for various plumbing jobs around their plots for total domination. Probably a feature that should have been left in the sixties, but I respect they wouldn’t be as iconic without them.

The modern version of Doctor Who (which has now been on air for nine years! Crikey) has raced through seven series and three Doctors – and we’re about to meet the fourth. The first, as I mentioned, was Christopher Eccleston, who only stuck around for one series. After he left, Moffat said they chose David Tennant (my personal favourite) based on his performance in other BBC series Casanova; ‘he was playing the Doctor in that role,’ said Moffat. Tennant became a bit of a sex symbol during his time as the doctor, which is amusing as he was initially criticised by the press for not being particularly attractive. Tennant stuck around for three series (with three different companions) before exiting stage left.

After Tennant left, Moff said he felt annoyed that the team were only auditioning young actors. The Doctor was never traditionally played by a young man (he is hundreds of years old, after all) and in Moffat’s mind, even David Tennant (who was 34 when he took the role) was far too young. Then, of course, Matt Smith turned up (pictured above, with recent companion Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman). Smith’s audition was astounding, but Moffat was horrified to learn that he was only 26 – still, he landed the part, and I remember very clearly the reaction of the press when it was revealed that a man in his twenties was to play the Doc (hint: it wasn’t great). But Smith stole the hearts of Whovians in his first five minutes, at the very end of David Tennant’s last episode when he regenerates as the TARDIS is crashing (feeling his slightly longer hair, he exclaims: ‘I’m a girl!’). Smith starred in three official series over five years, and has only just taken  his leave in the Christmas episode of 2013.

Matt Smith had announced his leave for a while and there was a great deal of anticipation over who would be next. For seemingly the first time, there was a great public demand for it to be a woman – after all, the Doctor could be either sex and we’re in 2014 now; we don’t need to see a smart, strong man run around with a simpering female companion (or ‘assistant’) and more. I’ve got to say I was in that bandwagon – not necessarily because of the reason above but more because I thought would freshen and transform the show, which was in need of a new formula. But Moffat sucks at writing for women, it has to be said, so there was no chance of it happening this year. When asked about it Hay (the audience member who brought it up received a round of applause), Moffat was firm to point out that there was no reason it couldn’t happen and that he himself had actually written the loophole into the script that indicates the Doctor could become a woman – but that it wouldn’t happen until the right actress came along. With all the Doctors, there had to be something about them that just made them a shoe-in for the role; Moffat said he refuses to cast someone for political reasons and will wait until someone has that appeal, in his eyes.


So instead Peter Capaldi was cast. He is apparently an actor they had always wanted (and one of an appropriate age, at last), although his decision to take the role was marred slightly by Doctor Who canon: he pops up in other small parts in Doctor Who and also had a recurring part in Torchwood (the Doctor Who spin off set in the same universe). Moffat was asked about this plothole by an audience member and he responded cryptically, saying he’d been working with Russell T Davies to write a credible explanation for that. Sounds intriguing – but this is Moffat, people, remember! Who knows if anything actually will be explained or not. Capaldi is due to make his Who debut this month – so we’ll have to wait and see what he’s like.



So then on to Sherlock, Moffat’s vanity project with long-term friend and Doctor Who collaborator Mark Gatiss. Sherlock has a funny origin story which I’ve heard a couple of times – Moffat and Gatiss often caught the train to Cardiff together for Doctor Who, but had to refrain from speaking too much about the show for you could guarantee there were fans listening in, desperate to hear about what was in store for the Doctor. With that topic out of bounds, they instead took to discussing their other great obsession – the stories about the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary creation, written and set in Victorian London. Moffat and Gatiss (or Mofftiss, as they have now been nicknamed) lamented that one day, someone was going to do a really good modern adaptation of the Holmes stories and they would be annoyed it wasn’t them. Apparently the obvious solution to that never occurred – not until one day, Moffat repeated this woe to his producer wife Sue, who said: ‘er, so why don’t you do it?’ It was a revelation, and a project they both leapt on.

And so in 2010 Sherlock appeared on BBC and took the world by storm. Moffat credits the show’s popularity to Cumberbatch, who I mentioned earlier takes the lead role, and Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson (both pictured above), as well as the brilliant supporting cast. Being huge fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss have worked very closely to the original structure of the stories while making sure they are relevant and interesting to a modern audience. I haven’t actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories but I completely fell in love with Sherlock – I think it has an appeal to both old and new fans of the ACD adventures and is a cut above the numerous adaptations that have appeared over the years – despite unfortunately appearing at the same time as another modern update on the other side of the Atlantic (Elementary) and a series of films about the Victorian Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. As I mentioned earlier, Cumberbatch has become hugely famous and an international sex symbol after appearing in Sherlock, yet Moffat remembered that, like Tennant, critics initially claimed he wasn’t sexy enough. Sometimes the part maketh the man, and if Doctor Who and Sherlock (and, hell, Jekyll) are anything to go by, Moffat’s found the formula.

Each season of the show consists of three 90-minute episodes (short films, as Mofftiss think of them) and so far there have been two-year gaps between them. I’ve never found this particularly problematic. Most British TV shows only have six episodes per season so three doesn’t seem so bad, especially when they’re an hour and a half long, and sure, the breaks mean that we have longer to wait and less to savour (Season 3 was over in ONE AND A HALF WEEKS) but it keeps the quality high and also makes it more likely that the show will keep running for years – until Cumberbatch and Freeman become too famous and too expensive to hire, at least. But there’s an ill feeling amongst the Sherlock fandom about it, a fandom that consists of many teenage girls – and Americans, who are used to 24-episode seasons that are churned out year after year. One American audience member asked Moffat if there ever would be more episodes and he seemed irked by the suggestion, claiming that it would simply be impossible to schedule owing to the packed calendars of everyone involved (Cumberbatch and Freeman are fully fledged Hollywood stars, now – with the hugely epic The Hobbit taking up most of their time over the last couple of years – and Moffat and Gatiss are both working hard on Doctor Who). He jokily remarked that they had made nine Sherlock Holmes films in the same time it’s taken Guy Ritchie to make two, so really we had no grounds to complain.


So then our hour was up – and so was my time at Hay. What a cool weekend! I didn’t blog about everything I went to see but I hope these posts have given you a nice flavour of the festival (if you’re still reading). I really recommend you go if you ever have the chance. Back then on to reviews, now – see my What’s Next page to see what’s a-coming. Promise it’s good.

[Photos: hayfestival.com and bbc.co.uk]

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