Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bumping into Doctor Who...

This is the first year since Doctor Who went back into production that I have not been in Cardiff to bump into film crews on my way to work or find famous faces lurching out of the darkness unexpectedly. Now I’m in Worcester it seems unlikely I’ll bump into the Doctor Who production team again, unless they do a celebrity historical about Elgar I suppose.

The time seems perfect then for a retrospective on three years of living with Who. From bumping into Christopher Eccleston to John Simm telling my wife secrets, taking in Russell T Davies uttering the words ‘I’m not stalking you, honestly!’, David Tennant buying karaoke CD’s and Phil Collinson setting off alarms along the way.

Of course we did get Who visitors in Cardiff before the new series. In what I now like to think of as the Dark Ages before 2005. Several years before he was to play Dickens in The Unquiet Dead Simon Callow paid a visit to the video department when he was at the New Theatre (playing Dickens I think) and I remember watching him stride though the shop booming into his mobile phone. Having just bought Queer as Folk on video, oddly enough.

Imagine enjoying a post-work pint in a local bar only to look up and lock eyes with the Valeyard. That’s what happened to me when Michael Jayston was in town and it gave me a bit of a turn I don’t mind admitting.

In the days before he played cupid on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway Christopher Biggins was happy to chat for a few minutes about recording the Big Finish story The One Doctor.

It was in 2004 that Cardiff became the focal point for all things Who though. As a life long fan I wondered if I might be lucky enough to see any of the cast or watch a bit of filming…

It started subtly enough. You know how it is; you’re topping up the 3 for £20 DVD’s at the front of the store and all of a sudden one of the greatest and most celebrated actors in the country walks past you. I had to surreptitiously follow him round the shop a bit before I could convince myself that yes, Christopher Eccleston was definitely browsing in my shop. He was to become a regular visitor, always popping in when filming in the vicinity of the city centre. Whilst obviously a man who likes his privacy, and his anonymity, he was a friendly enough customer although I only spoke to him once myself when I saw him in the soundtrack section with a Doctor Who at the BBC CD in his hand. I’m afraid it was just too much for me to resist really.

‘Are you okay there?’ I asked politely ‘are you after anything in particular?’
‘Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues,’ came the reply as TV’s Doctor Who dropped the BBC CD back into its pocket.

Aw, I thought, I was hoping for a Doctor Who question. I led him to the blues section and left him musing over the true meaning of the that old blues standard ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’.

I still think it sad that he left so soon but it’s hard to imagine Christopher Eccleston dealing with the constant attention that his replacement seems to manage so effortlessly. He was a familiar face around Cardiff for the best part of a year. He’d go running along the Taff trail, shop in the city centre and generally walk around in the midst of the general public without being recognised – despite having been in the public eye for fifteen years or more. He’s a private man who likes his space and I can respect that. That space must have been compromised post transmission of his series of Doctor Who, and I wonder if his period of living in America after Who was a reaction to his increased visibility. He was certainly well chosen for the role of Heroes’ invisible man.

Billie Piper was a figure less often sighted. Being arguably a more recognisable face than her co-star she might have felt less at liberty to roam the streets of Cardiff. She has also been known to disguise herself when in public which Eccleston made no effort to do. Apart from visiting the shop after arriving in Cardiff to ask where she could buy a new phone and buy a single (can’t remember which one) we had very few run ins with her over the next two years.

The first day of location filming had a high profile having been covered on the BBC’s Wales Today show. With some friends I hung around watching Cardiff being disguised as London and hoping for a glimpse of Eccleston or Piper. As it turned out I didn’t see any filming that night though some dirty-stop-outs were lucky enough to see the Auton rampage that claimed poor old Mark Benton’s character Clive. Of course, I already knew Mark Benton was going to be in it because he’d been in the shop looking at DVD’s that week. And a friend had seen him in M&S! My favourite memory of that evening was spotting a newspaper stand carrying a headline that harked back to the Web of Fear. Seeing that, which never made it to screen in the finished episode, I already felt that Doctor Who was in safe hands.

The first filming I got to see was for The Christmas Invasion the following summer, when Christmas came to Cardiff in July for the first time. We watched Piper and Noel Clarke running from the robot Santas and watched James Hawes and Phil Collinson overseeing the giant Christmas tree collapse. A year later I would have a close up view of the Doctor making money rain from the sky with Euros Lynn behind the cameras on almost the the same spot.

Even without my glasses I recognised the towering figure of Russell T Davies when he strode off of the escalator and marched around the DVD section laughing into his mobile phone with the voice of a God. It was mere days before the broadcast of the Children In Need mini episode and needless to say I couldn’t resist the urge to approach him. I waited for him to finish his conversation then stole up behind him while he was looking through the soundtracks section.

Standing behind him I heard my weedy voice say ‘Excuse me?’ He turned to look at me. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I whimpered, ‘but I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t shake your hand.’ The spark of recognition lit his eyes as he realized he had been spotted by a scaryfan. He took my sweaty paw and shook it politely.
‘What’s your name,’ he boomed.
‘Rob,’ I admitted.
‘Well I’m Russell,’ he smiled.
‘I know.’ Disaster had struck. I was clearly an imbecile.
‘I just like to be polite when I shake somebody’s hand,’ he justified.

Brilliant, not content with revealing myself to be a Scaryfan I’d now put him on his back foot. Then there came a moment of inspiration. I remembered my job and asked if there was anything he needed help with. What luck, there was indeed a quest which only the most courageous retail monkey could fulfil for the most successful screenwriter of his generation, and I had retail monkey written straight through me like a stick of Barry Island rock. It transpired that RTD had been watching rushes of Doctor Who set to music from The Sixth Sense. Russell was most impressed and resultantly wanted to get a copy for his very own. I had to order the CD in for him but Mr Davies had no concerns about giving me his telephone number, though it was with the proviso that I not telephone him to ask when the Rani was coming back. He couldn’t have been happier to chat and drop nuggets of insider info about Doctor Who. He was also quite frank when I asked why (at that point) there had not been a soundtrack CD released.

Oddly I was to meet Russell several times over the next few months. The last, and my favourite, being when I was walking down Queen street on my way to work and sensed someone walking close behind. I glanced over my shoulder to see who it was and unexpectedly found myself looking at Russell T.

‘Hello!’ I said, surprised.
‘Rob!’ He cried, ‘I’m not stalking you, honest.’

As he was going to my place of work anyway we got to have a little chat as we walked down the street. Even better my manager, Dan (a fellow Whoey), was on hand to see me saunter into work with RTD. A gold star day!

On all the occasions I met him I never had the courage to ask him about writing, or to mention I was an aspiring television writer myself. He doesn’t want to hear that, I thought. He must get it all the time. It was only when I learned that up and coming writer Tom McCrae had done exactly that at a book signing that I saw the error of my ways. McCrae got a two-parter out of it and all I got was my (super cool) signed series one box set. Next time, Russell, next time…

David Tennant popped into the shop at the height of Christmas looking for karaoke CD’s (for a present!). I employed my tried and tested customer service skills to approach him and ask if he needed help before ultimately revealing myself to be a Doctor Who fan. It’s true what they say he really is the nicest man in showbiz. He was happy to take a moment to talk about how much fun he was having – although they were on night shoots at that time (they would have been recording the first Cyberman two-parter) he was getting the chance to do some Christmas shopping.

After I’d left him to browse a group of young folk in floor length leather coats grabbed him for autographs and I felt responsible for ‘outing’ him somehow. This was before he’d even been glimpsed on television and it’s no surprise he’s kept a lower profile since. He has been known to visit though – and always seems ready to sign autographs for fans of any age.

In another missed industry opportunity Phil Collinson did some shopping with us one morning and just as I was plucking up courage to say hello to him his purchase set the alarm off. It hadn’t been de-tagged. It somehow didn’t seem appropriate to strike up a conversation then.

I’d moved to a different store by the time series three was filmed and although I still had a couple of run-ins with the crew (I was still based in Cardiff) I had less celebrity encounters. Colleagues told of a visit from Mark Gatiss, and I was lucky enough to meet Paul Cornell in Bristol (covered
here) but the final anecdote involves another series three guest star.

John Simm popped in with his son the week before series two of Life on Mars finished. He asked my wife for assistance and she told him how much she was enjoying the show.

‘Do you know why I’m in Cardiff though?’ he asked.
‘I can probably guess,’ said Emma.
‘Do you know who I’m playing?’ Asked TV’s Mr Saxon.

The really funny part was that there hadn’t even been a whisper about the return of the Master at that point.

Seeing as we’ve now left Cardiff and retail behind us it seems pretty unlikely I’ll be bumping into Doctor Who any more. It’s a shame, of course, but it’s also sort of nice. It feels somehow like I’m out of the loop and even less likely to be accidentally spoiled.

As a writer it gives me something to aspire to as well, maybe next time I watch Doctor Who being filmed I’ll be on the other side of the barrier.

Well, I can dream.


  1. Ah yes, I remember the RTD accompanied saunter well, and watching the robot Santas (after a stock count wasn't it?)

    Did I ever tell you about the time I served Mr Ecclestone? As you say, he was in quite often, and once it happened to be me behind the till when he came to pay. Obviously I was far too cool (scared) to say anything Whovian, but I remember he bought The Queen Is Dead, and another big Manchester album (The Stone Roses, maybe?). I did think it was odd that a professional Mancunian was waiting until 2005 to pick up these albums, but maybe he was just missing the MCR in his trailer...

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