Riotous interviews! Political rage! Teabags bought in bulk! Alan Yentob delivers an absolute treat of a documentary about a once-in-a-generation talent
‘A once in a generation talent’ … Russell T Davies and Alan Yentob on the set of Doctor Who.
Alan Yentob waits in reception at Doctor Who’s new HQ, with a Dalek prop for company. “Look, there’s the greatest evil in the universe,” says Russell T Davies in welcome. “And a Dalek.” I suspect it isn’t the first time Davies has cracked this gag, but delivered with a hearty laugh and a bear hug, Yentob is powerless to resist. After all, as presenter and series editor, he gamely left it in the final cut.
This joyous film profiles the once in a generation talent known as RTD. Well, I say once in a generation. A lovely sequence sees Davies reunite with his old Granada mucker Sally Wainwright, arguably his sole rival as Britain’s top television writer. As they ponder their parallel careers, I’m relieved there isn’t a gas explosion or similar tragedy. Contemporary British TV would have been ruined in one fell swoop.
A whistle stop tour of his TV CV begins with Davies’s roots in children’s programming, including a brief stint as a Play School presenter. Imagine if he hadn’t realised that his destiny lay behind the camera. Doesn’t bear thinking about. We fast forward past underrated gems like Bob & Rose (gay Jonathan Creek!), The Second Coming (young Christopher Eccleston!), Casanova (young David Tennant!), and Cucumber (which makes me cry all over again at that devastating Cyril Nri death scene).
Yentob traces Davies’s evolution as our foremost screen chronicler of the gay male experience. Davies first dipped a toe in with an episode of period soap The Royal, about a closeted barman discovering Manchester’s Canal Street in the 1920s. When producers hesitated, he held his nerve, knowing that budgets were so tight they had no choice but to shoot his script. Having found his voice, Davies was emboldened to create the landmark drama Queer As Folk and its spiritual prequel, the recent masterpiece It’s a Sin.
After channelling his political rage into the dystopian polemic Years and Years, and powered by the death of his beloved husband Andrew Smith, Davies felt ready to tell the story he’d been avoiding for 30 years. He had deliberately ignored HIV and Aids in Queer As Folk to kick against screen stereotypes. Now it was finally time to honour “those brave, beautiful boys” who died during the 80s epidemic. It’s a Sin duly broke streaming records and led to a huge rise in HIV testing.
Davies has always plundered his past for ideas. As he says: “There’s not the writer and then me. There’s just me. All of my life connects to the writing. All of it.” In his home in Mumbles, Swansea, there are toy Daleks on the bookshelves, and “La!” mugs in the kitchen (a nod to an in-joke from It’s a Sin). His teenage memories of the Jeremy Thorpe trial begat A Very English Scandal. His obsession with the wobbly-set soap Crossroads led to Nolly. He cheerfully reveals that stories, scenes and chunks of dialogue sit in his head for decades, waiting for an opportunity. Broadcast-ready scripts then come pouring out all at once, his typing fingers struggling to keep pace. He asks Yentob: “You talk to lots of writers. Aren’t we all like this?” Not really, no. Davies looks slightly disappointed.
Woven throughout, of course, is a certain Time Lord. Watching Doctor Who aged three isn’t just Davies’ first TV memory, it’s his first memory full stop. While other Swansea schoolboys were discovering football and girls, he was glued to the telly, creating remarkably accomplished Who comic strips. He eventually realised he was writing, not drawing. In 2005, Davies masterminded the show’s reboot after 16 years off air, transforming it from a naff joke into a global franchise.
There’s no better custodian of the ultimate show for outsiders and underdogs, hence he is taking the reins again for its 60th anniversary special. He must have been in the Tardis countless times, but Davies still fizzes with glee when he takes Yentob inside that magical blue box. It’s a Sin reinvigorated his taste for shows that spark a national conversation. Now he can pour all his passion and stored-up stories into NuWho MK II, using Disney’s cash to help realise his vision. It bodes well for the show’s future. So do tantalising glimpses of the incoming Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, who has charisma – or “rizz”, as the dictionary now calls it – to burn.
Sure, this is puff as much as documentary. Yet with its riotous interviews and evocative clips, this is a timey wimey treat – whether you’re a Whovian, a fan of great TV or just someone who appreciates a man with a resealable pack of 1,000 Tetley teabags (Davies is an out and proud bulk buyer). It is glorious to spend an hour in the company of his big, blazing brilliance – and a reminder of how lucky we are to have him.
Imagine … Russell T Davies: The Doctor and Me was on BBC One and is available on iPlayer.