Since his quirky supernatural TV show Being Human became a smash hit for BBC3 in 2008 (making stars of its leads Aiden Turner, Lenora Crichlow and Russell Tovey in the process) writer Toby Whithouse’s career has gone from strength to strength. His latest glossy six-part drama, The Game, was lauded by critics and fans alike – and he’s even being talked about as the next Doctor Who showrunner. Felicity Evans caught up with him to find out more…
The Game aired very recently, to great critical acclaim. How are you feeling about it, now it’s gone out and done so well?
It’s a bit strange, because it was meant to go out in April 2014, and for one reason and another it was delayed for over a year. In the meantime it went out in the US and did very well over there, and we all felt as though we were waiting around for ages for it to broadcast here. When it finally went out the critical reception was absolutely fantastic, and I’m incredibly proud because it was everything I wanted it to be – the cast were absolutely extraordinary. But it’s been very odd: we finished filming it in 2013!
So, you’re possibly feeling a bit detached from it all at the moment?
Yes and no. I’m delighted that people enjoyed it – that always goes down well! The whole point of the job is to entertain people and give them something they enjoy, so it is immensely satisfying. I never take it for granted. I think a lot of people worry that they are going to be rumbled, that everyone is going to turn round and go: ‘hang on, he’s terrible!’. So consequently I’m always nervous about the next project – but that was always the way. After Being Human, which was successful and for quite a long time as well, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, how will I follow that?’. Which is possibly why I wanted to do something completely different. But again, that’s an insecurity that keeps you going, that motivates you.
Let’s talk about Being Human, because there is so much that’s interesting about that show, not just that it was so well-received and so popular, but also how it came about, how initially it wasn’t even going to be supernatural, and so forth…
It never really felt like a show that was going to happen! Admittedly every show feels like that as there are no guarantees, but initially it was going to be a straight, human house-share set-up, but then after a very protracted development process we all knew we were getting absolutely nowhere, so I suggested – perhaps in a slightly kill-or-cure kind of way! – that one of the characters should be a werewolf. Because that would at least give us a conversation for the first episode. That in turn led to a conversation that took it a step further, to a house-share with a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost. I never imagined for a moment that it would happen!
No, and ten, 15 years ago it wouldn’t!
Yes, and part of the reason we never thought it would happen is that at the time there was really no appetite for high-concept shows on TV. That all changed with Doctor Who, and I think Doctor Who’s success paved the way for Being Human, Misfits, everything that’s happened since. But the first version I wrote was as a sitcom, because I thought that was the only way to handle such a stupid idea! And then after about eight drafts we looked at it and thought: ‘This still isn’t right’. So in a kamikaze move I threw the entire thing out and thought, right, I’m going to write this entirely for myself. I’m going to pretend that I’m writing a low-budget, independent American film and it obviously won’t happen. By this point we were in year three of the process, so I thought: ‘no-one is ever going to make this!’. And that was incredibly liberating! From then on it was the easiest script I’ve ever written.
It became so hugely popular, with a viewing demographic that presumably went far beyond your original target audience, if indeed you had a target audience in mind…?
I’ve never, ever thought about a target audience! BBC Three is a particular audience of course, but you have to be careful if you start tailoring a narrative and a script accordingly. I wasn’t 18 when I wrote it and couldn’t pretend to be, it would be just laying myself open to really getting it wrong. Stories are stories, and younger audiences are so much more clever and sophisticated than they are given credit for, and so in terms of the complexity of the storytelling and so forth I didn’t really change anything. You’ve still got to create engaging characters and interesting stories.
There does seem to be a trend in TV to simply try and reproduce what’s been previously popular, regardless of whether or not it might result in something that’s any good…
If you look at Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards, any show that has made an impact, I can guarantee you that the one thing that unites them all is character. So consequently, you could come up with a very cynical idea that’s a combination of the ‘greatest hits’ of the last few great shows, but what audiences want is character, and that’s something you can’t fake, something that no amount of cynicism or opportunism is going to make up for.
Going back to Being Human, the huge advantage we had was that the budget was tiny, compared to a BBC1 show. I had trained as an actor before I became a writer, and I was in the last series of Being Human playing the Home Secretary – because we couldn’t afford anyone, we had literally run out of money. So I did it for free. But because we had no money, it meant we had to rely on character because we couldn’t do elaborate special effects. Character is free! One of the benefits was that we attracted a really great class of guest star, such as Robson Green and Julian Barratt. They were taking enormous pay cuts to come and do it, but they came and did it because they responded to the characters in the script. Whether you’re making something for Netflix or BBC3 or whatever, it’s got to be rooted in character.
How did working on Being Human affect you as a writer?
I often get asked by new writers… the thing is, they’re desperate for their own shows – they’re just starting out and they want to be showrunners. And that would be a terrible, terrible mistake. It was a long time before I ran Being Human, and I’m so pleased it didn’t happen any sooner. The sheer weight of work and responsibility is extraordinary, more than I could ever have anticipated, and had it happened any earlier in my career I would have been completely overwhelmed. Being Human taught me many, many things: it was an incredibly steep learning curve. I couldn’t even list how it changed me as a writer and how it improved me as a writer!
Speaking of showrunners, I have to ask… your name is often mentioned in the same breath as ‘next Doctor Who showrunner’. Can you tell me anything at all about that?
No-one at the BBC has ever had this conversation with me! No-one has asked me, no-one has approached me about if Steven [Moffatt, the current showrunner] leaves, when Steven leaves. These are conversations that happen purely among fans, not on any official level.
Writing for Doctor Who as a someone who is also a fan – it must be a dream come true, isn’t it?
There’s a reason I go back to Doctor Who every year, and that’s because I absolutely love working on it! There is something so magical, so ludicrous about that show! We’re all quite established writers, but we all go back, we all keep doing it! It’s ridiculous, and it’s brilliant, and you get to work with some of the best actors in the industry. The appeal never fades: I’m 45 now, and writing: ‘Interior: TARDIS’ at the top of a scene is still really, really exciting. You also get to tell these extraordinary stories that you couldn’t write for any other show. I’ve written for three Doctors now, and with David [Tennant], Matt [Smith] and Peter [Capaldi], you can throw the most convoluted dialogue, the subtlest gag, at them and they will get it because they are brilliant. Watching your ridiculous, strange stories get realised by these people is a wonderful thing.
Any hints about the upcoming season…?
No! Steven would come round here and kick me in the shins! I like to know as little as possible, actually, as I really enjoy watching the show as a punter. Spoilers – that’s exactly what they are. So I have no idea what happens after my episode.
That must be nice, actually!
Yeah, it’s great! I could find out relatively easily, but I don’t want to, I want to sit on the sofa with my daughter and watch it for the first time, not knowing what’s going to happen. Actually, just before Peter [Capaldi] was announced, I was with Steven and I said: ‘Look, I’ve just got to know: who is it?’ And Steven said, ‘Well, I could tell you, but then if it gets out… it’s your fault.’ Of course my response was: ‘Oh for God’s sake – don’t tell me!’
You’ve mentioned future projects – can you tell me about those?
I really can’t! OK, well, one is an original sci-fi script – the other two are genuinely top-secret!
What have you enjoyed and admired recently?
The best show I’ve seen in the last five years is Utopia. I wrote one of my only pieces of fan mail to Dennis Kelly [the creator and writer of Utopia] and he very kindly invited me to have a cup of tea, and I went along and genuflected! He also very kindly sent me an email after the first episode of The Game saying how much he enjoyed it, which meant more to me than I can tell you. Watching Utopia, I just went through every emotion: admiration, awe, jealousy! I absolutely loved it, it was so up my street, it was almost as if all these people had gathered together to specifically create this show for Toby Whithouse in Brighton, which I am immensely grateful to them for!
Doctor Who Season 9 will begin on BBC1 on Saturday, 19 September 2015.