In conversation with Andrew Cartmel

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I meet Andrew Cartmel, former Doctor Who Script Editor, writer of scripts, books, comics, and more via a Skype window early on a bright Wednesday morning. He’s good company, friendly and witty, and seems happy to discuss his work at such an early hour.

AC: Good morning!

MR: Good morning Andrew, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Obviously, as we all know very well, you were Script Editor for Doctor Who from 1986 to ’89, and Script Editors on the original series were often really what you would call Showrunners these days.

AC: That’s true, yes. That’s very true.

MR: You dictated the show’s direction with other writers, but you didn’t write for it yourself, which a lot of your predecessors did, was that deliberate?

AC: Well, I think that was basically a mistake, it was partly a combination of not wanting to just hire myself, as the standard thing to do is just commission yourself. So, that was not entirely wrong, but I felt that was a little teeny bit wrong. More importantly I really wanted to bring on a bunch of new writers, I was very keen and gung-ho to give them all a chance. In a sense I’d been given my break through the script editing, so I wanted to give other people a break. However, in retrospect, that is my greatest regret on the shows, that I didn’t write at least one story every season.

MR: It’s a shame that you never got to do that, but it’s a very good principle that you brought in so many new writers, once you’d seen off Pip and Jane Baker.

AC: Yeah, apart from Pip and Jane, whose work I didn’t like, if I had written for the show, I’d be very hard pressed to say which of those scripts, which of the existing stories I would not like to see up there. In fact, I’d like to see them all up there, so in a way it’s perhaps just as well that I didn’t write.

MR: Have you got a particular favourite of those stories?

AC: There’s no real one favourite, but Ben (Aaronovitch)’s first script, Remembrance of the Daleks generally edges across the finishing line ahead of the others, but I think there’s tremendous virtues in Survival, which I adore…..Ghost Light.….Fenric, but when I start listing them, there’s some of those virtues attached to all of them.

MR: You were very young when John Nathan-Turner appointed you as Script Editor, what was it like being such a young man, doing that job? Normally it was a job that more seasoned, veteran, tweedy writers might have done in the past….

AC: Well, as you say….. your use of the word ‘seasoned’ but perhaps not the word ‘tweedy’ indicates it’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of experience, but as it happened, I had a very clear idea of what needed to be done. I was not unacquainted with scripts, there were still things for me to learn, but I had a good, solid feel for television scripts having written a load of them myself on spec and studied them quite closely…and I had a very strong idea of which direction we could take Who in, although that was to develop and elaborate once I started working on the show. I’m by no means saying that I knew everything, or even everything I needed to know, but I had a really good starting point.

MR: Sure, what I mean is that you came to it through a slightly different route, didn’t you, and you were younger and had very different influences, for example the interest in comics; 2000AD, Love and Rockets, Watchmen

AC: Yes, all of the above, most crucially it was Alan Moore’s comics. I remember, I was just thinking about this this morning, because I’ve been re-reading Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, because I’m currently working on some Graphic Novels for Titan. My friend Ben Aaronovitch of Remembrance fame and I are doing some comic books about his Rivers of London series, I don’t know if you know that, it’s a series of best-selling books he’s written.

MR: I don’t know it, but that sounds good.

AC: You should check ’em out, they’re wonderful, they’re supernatural police procedurals set in London, and they’re a huge success, and now we’re doing some comic books based on the characters, so I’ve been going for the first time in years into my comic book influences…re-reading the Swamp Thing, which is probably one of the first things by Alan Moore outside 2000AD that really knocked my socks off. I remember when I went in for my Doctor Who interview, I believe the Swamp Thing run was at the point where he was a spore, floating through space….I wouldn’t swear to that, but I do know that story was in my mind when I went for my interview with Jonathan Powell about Doctor Who.

MR: That’s interesting. Do you think you would have liked to have written for comics at that time?

AC: Well, interestingly Doctor Who gave me the chance to write for comics, because there was a regular comic strip feature in Doctor Who Magazine, and I had the opportunity to write for that, so Doctor Who got me writing comics at the time. I continued to write for comics briefly, I did a bit for the 2000AD Megazine, but it trailed off, but now it seems to be happening again, which is great.

MR: Evening’s Empire, wasn’t it?

AC: Evening’s Empire was the best and most beautiful thing that came out of my Doctor Who work. There were a number of stories, but that one was a long-form story, self contained, and it was published as a kind of graphic novel.

MR: Oh yes, I’ve got it.

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AC: It was perhaps a little too short and the cover was a little too floppy, you couldn’t quite call it a graphic novel, but it was a terrific piece of work on the part of Richard Piers Rayner, the illustrator. I’m quite pleased with a lot of the things I did in the story there. It had a long and tortuous and frustrating genesis, but once it finally got out there, it certainly was the best thing I’d done in comics up to that date, I’m delighted you’ve got a copy, it’s a pretty obscure item.

MR: Yes, it’s the Classic Comics reprint or something along those lines….it was the first time the whole story came out, wasn’t it? I remember reading the first part in DWM and thinking, wow, this is great, but then the second part didn’t materialise…

AC: Yeah, me too! It was serialised in Doctor Who Magazine, and Richard was doing some great work on it, but then something happened, and I never really found out what happened, I think Richard just…….. artists often lead complex and exciting lives, and he just couldn’t, or didn’t make the deadline, and didn’t deliver the art, and that was that, it just stopped in mid-stream.

Now, that’s not that unusual, there was a fantastic series by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz called Big Numbers….and that just stopped (laughs), it was great, I thought, I’ll just wait for the next issue, and it just stopped and it never started again. That was the kind of fate I thought had befallen good old Evening’s Empire, but, lo and behold, Richard did eventually deliver it. I mean this was probably a year or two later, he actually delivered all the art, and the real hero in this was John Freeman, who was my editor. Instead of just throwing up his hands in despair, John saw the project through, reprinted the earlier material and the new material and put it all together in this beautiful one-shot. I don’t remember that happening elsewhere. So, John Freeman, bless him, I thank him so much for that, cause I thought this project was dead in the water, but he actually carried it across the finishing line.

MR: It was a lovely piece of work, it was a real labour of love, to see it actually come out in colour as well.

AC: Yeah, it ended up being a better and more beautiful thing, because it was in colour, it was all together in a single dedicated comic between two covers, and it was a much, much better situation than if it had just been serialised in a fragmentary fashion in black and white. Having said that it was quite stressful waiting for it to happen, but once it was out it was great.

MR: I’d definitely read more of that. At the time I was a teenager and there was no Doctor Who on TV anymore, Evening’s Empire for me was a real highlight of that time. I walked into a newsagent, saw it on the shelf, and just snatched it up…

AC: Thank you. And what a great cover. The picture of Sophie (Aldred)’s really nice on it.

MR: Yes, it’s a great picture of Sophie, he captures her likeness really well I think.

AC: Yeah, that’s one of the things with comic artists, they’re often great in their own right, but they don’t necessarily draw the characters consistently, especially when they’re based on real people, that’s such a crucial thing. Richard did a good job on Sylv too, he looks really mysterious.

MR: Yeah, very dark, very brooding.

AC: All that business in Middlesborough at the canal, yeah. It’s coming back to me now, Martin (laughs)

MR: I didn’t realise until fairly recently, but you wrote an unproduced script for Torchwood a few years ago?

AC: Yeah, and it was a cracker, it was called The Jinx. It was superb (laughs). I say that in all modesty as the poor thing never saw the light of day. Tremendously frustrating, they paid me for it but they didn’t make it. There was unconscionable delays with that script, not at my end, at their end, and by the time they finally commissioned it, which I’m grateful that they did, because I got paid, and I got to write this lovely thing……Um…Torchwood had completely changed format, so it was dead in the water.

However, a guy at Torchwood magazine did a feature about all the lost stories, and he got in touch with me about it, a very good piece, his name is James Goss. He’s a nice bloke, and the thing is, he actually read the script and he refers to it in the article. The reason I invoke his name is that it proves that at least two people like the script, me and him! It was a terrific piece of work, and it was very Torchwood and I loved it. It was a tremendously frustrating point of my career when that just didn’t happen. At some point, perhaps somebody should put some pdfs of it out on the web and people can read and decide for themselves.

MR: That would be good to see. I didn’t realise there were plans for a third series of Torchwood in the same mould as the first two, rather than what eventually emerged, Children of Earth.

AC: It’s hard to remember now. I think I was commissioned for series two, and everything just turned to tapioca, as we say. But it’s an interesting script, and a step forward in my development as a TV scriptwriter, so I’m quite proud of it.

MR: Would you like to write for the current series of Doctor Who?

AC: Yeah…I have a standard answer for that, but we’ve got to be a bit careful with it.

My standard answer is, I’d love to write for Doctor Who, but people should really approach Ben first, as he has an idea, a fantastic Doctor Who idea. Actually, Ben’s way too busy to write for Doctor Who, but the distinction I’m making is that I’d love to write for it, but at the moment I don’t have an idea at the front of my head which I’m champing at the bit to write. Ben’s got this wonderful idea, and I keep saying to Ben that somebody should commission you to do that. However, I made the mistake of saying this in front of a reporter, I think for the Islington Gazette. Now, the headline that appeared is “Ben Aaronovitch has written Doctor Who script”…. No, he hasn’t written a script. He has in his head, within his big brain he has an idea floating around.

Yeah, so I’d love to write for Doctor Who, and I’m sure some of the other writers from my period would too, and could do a cracking job. So, we’ll see what happens. I quite understand why when Russell (T. Davies) first took over he wanted a new slate, he didn’t want to return to the earlier group of writers. But, I think, perhaps, as the years go by, people might be more open to doing that. Certainly they’ve had some of the classic directors back, and it’s in no way been a bad thing, so I’m hoping that that’ll happen.

MR: I think that would be really good. I understand where he came from as well, just bringing in new blood at first, but I would love to see Bob Baker or Terrance Dicks write for it again. I’d like to see yourself, or Ian Briggs do one.

AC: Thank you. Terrance is a lovely bloke. Did you say Ian Briggs? The great thing about Briggs is, I’ve always been so peeved at him, as he’s such a good writer, and he hasn’t been doing anything. However, lately, just a couple of weeks ago, a script from Ian Briggs came into my inbox. He had emailed me this short film he had written, and it’s hilarious, and beautifully written. After all these years he’s getting back into writing, and I had a little discussion with him about it, and he’d become disillusioned, and I understand that. I recently did some interviews for Doctor Who Magazine with all the writers of my period…

MR: I’ve been reading that, yes.

AC: Oh great. Well, a lot of these people haven’t spoken for years, and some of them have never spoken on record, like Rona Munro, and,the thing is, Rona was saying about how working on Doctor Who, it kind of spoiled her, as television otherwise was some kind of a sausage factory, and the writers were not particularly well treated. And that was what Ian was saying, he’d had a great experience on Doctor Who, and then he’d had a pretty crappy experience on shows like The Bill

I quite understand why people can lose their enthusiasm like Ian did, and to some extent, Rona did, although she’s a hugely successful playwright, radio writer, and film writer too….but, television has tended to fall by the wayside, as writers are often treated really badly in television. So, I’d love to see Briggs back again, I’m just sorry that he got discouraged, but I do understand why that happened.

MR: I’ve read the first part of the series, it’s very interesting, where you talk to Stephen Wyatt, and Malcolm Kohll….and Ian as well?

AC: Yeah, I’ve talked to Ian twice and Ben twice, and Stephen as well, as all three of them did two stories each.

MR: The second and third part haven’t been published yet…

AC: No, it was put on hold for an issue because they did the grand poll. The next issue should have part two, and the issue after that, with a bit of luck should have part three. Part one was very well received. I was just chuffed to do it, really.

MR: I look forward to reading the rest, I was with you on Time and the Rani, I remember watching it as a kid and thinking..”Oh no…”, but then Paradise Towers followed that, and that really interested me..

AC: It rallied a bit, didn’t it? I said my first greatest regret about Doctor Who was not having written any. My second greatest regret was that on Time and the Rani…..Pip and Jane and I just couldn’t agree on anything, so that was a really bad experience. I really wish I could have done a better job on that, and that it had turned out better, but failing that, I think I should have not had my name on it as Script Editor, because I cannot take any credit…..for people who loved that show, it was really nothing to do with me, and for people who hate it…..I refuse to take any blame!

So, I wish I’d just drawn a line in the sand and just said to John, look, I refuse to be credited as Script Editor on this. If I really was script editing….either I would change it completely, or I would hire other writers. And if I had drawn that line in the sand then John might have realised how seriously I felt about it. Or, alternatively, he might have found another Script Editor, so we just don’t know…But, Martin, I do need to ask, have you read Script Doctor?

MR: I don’t have a copy, but I understand there’s a revised edition.

(Andrew would like to point out that this is some of his most shameless hustling, but the revised edition of his Who Production memoir Script Doctor is now available from miwk publishing, and contains 32 pages of colour photos, plus new material from Andrew, as well as a new intro by Steven Moffat and an afterword from Sophie Aldred)

AC: The thing is, if you’re interested in the show, that completely covers it, because I through a large portion of time when I was on Doctor Who, I actually had a diary going, so I wrote down what happened, who said what….and it’s just like being there, it’s a fantastic little time capsule. It’s the next best thing to having shot a documentary at that time.

MR: It must be interesting to go back and see where your head was at, at the time.

AC: Yeah….It’s kind of lovely and also a little bit too much, because it’s a little bit too much of a trip down memory lane sometimes. It brings back memories, good and bad. No, but it’s terrific, it’s a great way of reliving it.

MR: As far as the modern series goes, do you have a particular favourite episode?

AC: You know what, the one that introduced Freema Agyeman, Smith and Jones…..I would say that one really. I thought she was such a great companion, it’s a terrific kick-ass episode, and it just sticks in my mind, but I haven’t seen them all. People are often surprised by that, but because I was so closely involved with it myself, it’s a bit of an emotional wrench to see other people doing it. I’m delighted they’re doing such a great job, but I’ve got kind of mixed emotions about it, so I don’t watch every episode.

MR: It’s a big ask to watch all of anything.

AC: Yeah, even with DVDs to catch up. However, I am doing a revised version of my book about the history of Doctor Who, and I’ve been writing about key episodes, so I’ll be watching some more of them soon. That book was called Through Time, which is a rubbish title, but the publisher was very concerned about getting in trouble for doing an unauthorised, unapproved Doctor Who book.

So it didn’t have any TARDIS on the cover, and the title was a little enigmatic, not a bad book. I watched a lot of key episodes from every era and said what I thought about them, but we’re doing a hugely enhanced new version, which is going to be called Who as Who, which at least sounds like a Doctor Who book. Over the years I’ve been involved in writing quite a few articles for DWM about the show, and the great thing about that is it’s led me to interview most of the surviving Script Editors. I’ve spoken to Donald Tosh, I’ve spoken to Chris Bidmead, I’ve spoken to Eric Saward, I’ve spoken to Terrance, on a number of occasions.

So, I’ve got all these interviews to draw on. It’s going to be about Doctor Who from the writers and Script Editors perspective, so I’m going to include those interviews. Also, we’ve managed to get hold of the writer’s guides. When I was working on the show, I wrote this document for prospective writers telling them what to do, what not to do. Apparently most of the Script Editors did that, so we’ll be including those in the book, and there’ll be some new illustrations, so it’ll be quite a nice package. So I haven’t seen a lot of the new era stuff, but I’ll be seeing a lot more about it, so I can write about it in this book.

MR: I was about to ask you if the former Script Editors ever met up and compared notes, but you’ve just answered that for me.

AC: We all got together at Panopticon many years ago to do a panel, and I’ve remained in touch with a lot of these guys since and they’re just lovely blokes. Donald Tosh is just wonderful, he’s this lovely guy, still there from the Hartnell era, isn’t that amazing?

MR: He’s the oldest surviving Script Editor, isn’t he?

AC: Yeah, and long may he survive, he’s a great bloke.

MR: I’d love to meet Terrance Dicks.

AC: Terrance and I had a lot of conversations, and the interesting thing is…we had such different approaches, so when I’m talking about how he went about his script editing and shaping the show, and how I did it, we were finding we were in complete disagreement about most things, and yet, we were each fascinated by the other guy’s methodology. He loved talking to me, as it made him think about it in a completely different way. I must say I look at the show in a different light thanks to his comments.

MR: It’s great to have that exchange, isn’t it?

AC: One of the most fascinating things was the Time Lords. I’ve always been completely against the Time Lords because they make the Doctor one of many, as opposed to a unique entity. But when you look at why they did it, and I discussed this with Terrance, who’s effectively responsible for introducing the Time Lords. I mean, the occasional Time Lord had popped up earlier, like the Meddling Monk, but the Time Lords as Time Lords from Gallifrey only really came in under Terrance and Malcolm Hulke in The War Games. And when you discuss the motivations for that it’s just fascinating, as to why it happened and why the logic took them there.

MR: If I ever cross paths with Terrance, because of all those old stories and Target Books I grew up with, I definitely owe that man a pint.

AC: He’ll definitely accept it.

MR: We spoke a little bit earlier about when you talked to the Islington Archaeology and History Society in April. You were quoted on the subject of missing episodes…

AC: Yeah that was great.

MR: What was the story with that?

AC: Well, if you actually read the story, there’s a headline that says “Script Editor says all missing episodes will be found”, and then if you actually read the body of the text it says all missing episodes may be found. Even the headline and the story disagree. I got in touch with the journalist via Twitter, as I was misquoted about Ben Aaronovitch, but they were “Well, my notes say this…”

So the guy took some stuff down wrong, but even what he got right was misrepresented by the headline. All I said was, they’ve found so many episodes, which I’m delighted about, I couldn’t be more pleased that these Troughton episodes have finally seen the light of day…how wonderful is that? Having found these great episodes in Africa, I believe, I think that there’s a good chance that all of them are out there, somewhere in some dusty corner of the world, and I hope, and I trust, and I believe we’ll find them all, but I don’t have any sort of inside scoop on it.

There was a story before that, saying I’d said that some missing episodes had been found, and that was true, but that was these rediscovered Troughton episodes that we’re talking about. I’d seen some blokes at the BBC, who had told me that, yes, they found some classic missing episodes, and I made the mistake of mentioning this. And people got really irate about it as I couldn’t quote chapter and verse, as I didn’t have any chapter and verse, so they said, “Oh, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. In that case what I’d said was entirely accurate, as demonstrated when those lost Troughton episodes surfaced, but in this case, I really don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m just speculating.

MR: Thanks for clearing that up for us! It’s been a huge thing in fandom the last year or so.

AC: I can understand that, as it’s such a scoop, it’s so great when they do find them, and I do hope they will find them all. So much of Troughton is missing, isn’t it, which I think in many ways is the greatest era of the show. There’s no reason more shouldn’t be found, what’s happened could be called proof of principle — it indicates that they can be found, and they are out there.

MR: Thank you very much for talking to me, Andrew, it’s been lovely to talk to you.

AC: Good to talk to you, take care.

 

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