Monday, 2 March 2009

Book Review: T Is For Television

‘The Writer’s Tale’ a big, chunky BBC Books publication released last October, chronicling a year’s worth of e-mail correspondence between Dr Who show-runner Russell T Davies and Dr Who Magazine feature writer Benjamin Cook, was not only one of the best coffee table books about Dr Who ever written, it was also one of the very best books about writing for television ever published. Stark, brutally-honest and unflinchingly candid about the agonies (and sometimes the ecstasies) of being a fully paid-up professional full-time writer, the book laid bare the writing process and revealed the truth behind the rewrites, the late nights, the doubts and uncertainties which plague even a writer of Davies’s considerable talent and experience. As I finished the book I felt I wanted to know more – not just about Davies but about Davies as a writer, about his body of work and how it all happened. Cue ‘T is For Television’, a captivating page-turner written by Mark Aldridge and Andy Murray and published by Reynolds and Hearn which tells you all you could ever really want to know about the career of the man who reinvented Saturday night telly in the UK and whose surname most assuredly isn’t Cowell.

‘T Is For Television’ is part biography, part career analysis. The book takes us right back to Davies’s childhood, the days spent as a bit of a loner wandering the streets of Swansea creating Dr Who stories in his head and imagining all sorts of school playground conspiracies. We’re taken through his early years at the BBC in Cardiff, how he blundered into script-writing shows like ‘Why Don’t You’ (because the producer couldn’t be bothered and delegated the writing to Davies), subverting the genre of children’s TVin the process before progressing onto script-editing other shows (and narrowly avoiding a stint on doomed ITV soap ‘Crossroads’). It was a long, wandering road for Davies until he was commissioned to write the six-part kid’s TV thriller ‘Dark Season’ starring a young Kate Winslet – you may have heard of her - and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. ‘T is For Television’ takes us through every show Davies has worked on since in whatever capacity he worked on it, from ITV daytime soaps like ‘Revelations,’ barely-watched Sky dramas like ‘Springhill’, and as a contributing writer to series such as ‘Linda Green’ and his own projects including as the notorious but landmark ‘Queer As Folk’ and all those shows which followed in its wake. ‘T is for Television’s strength as a book is that it’s not written in awe of its subject; the writers are happy to point out the flaws in Davies’ shows, whether they’re flaws in concept, writing, or production and Davies himself, apparently interviewed extensively for the book, is remarkably honest about those of his shows (and that’s quite a lot of them) which just didn’t find an audience – ‘Bob & Rose’ (although its six million figures for prime time ITV today would be counted as a considerable success), ‘The Grand’ and ‘Mine All Mine’, the rambunctious saga of a Welshman inheriting Swansea. Even the pre-Dr Who drama ‘Casanova’ starring David Tennant, which performed well for BBC3, went by largely unnoticed on its BBC1 transmission shortly afterwards.

This is the stuff that makes ‘T is For Television’ so fascinating and so revelatory. It’s not a back-slapping celebration of huge success – it’s a warts and all look at some TV shows which, whilst not all massive audience successes, became landmarksin their medium and stepping stones in a career which has, despite itself, defined the idea of the British TV writer in the 21st century. The rollercoaster which has been Davies’s career, the shows which were and never were (the QAF spin-off ‘Misfits’., the Celador-backed film about the ‘Who Want To Be A Millionaire’ Major Ingram fiasco which would have been made if not for Davies’s commitment Dr Who) is explored in glorious details and readers will find much amusement in Davies’s reuse of both names (Tyler, Mott, Rose, Harkness – names which appear again and again in his stories) and ideas (a storyline reminiscent of season one Dr Who story ‘The Long Game’ was submitted to the classic series production crew way back in 1988) although, ironically, the sections devoted to Dr Who and Torchwood (the latter coming in for some criticism due to its uneven tone) are the least interesting parts of the book because, by now, we’re all so familiar with Dr Who’s success story and how the whole phenomenon was kick-started again. The book does, though, refer to the troubled first production block of Dr Who in 2004 and questions the received wisdom that Christophoer Ecclesotn was only ever signed to play the part for one series. We’ll probably never really know…

‘T is For Television’ may not be the most attractive book on your shelf should you chose to purchase it (and if you’re interested in good TV and how it’s written you really should) and there are a couple of howlers which could have been corrected with another run through the proof-reading process (Amanda Redman in Peter Davison’s ‘At Home With the Braithwaites’ and not Amanda Holden, for one) but it’s the ideal companion piece to ‘The Writer’s Tale’ and, despite its dry, rather humourless tone, is thoroughly absorbing and utterly compelling. Very highly recommended Stuff, in fact!

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