Doctor Who: Chris Chibnall recalls ‘sleepness nights’ over Rosa

Doctor Who's incredible Rosa episode was originally a source of worry and then pride, says Chris Chibnall

During a visit to the Cardiff set of Doctor Who series 12, Den Of Geek and other outlets chatted with showrunner Chris Chibnall and core cast members Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole about one of the standout moments of series 11 – Rosa, the episode which told the story of Rosa Parks battling racism through a slightly sci-fi lens.

Asked whether the team was worried about tackling this particular chapter in humanity’s history, Chibnall offered this candid insight: “Were we worried? Yeah, absolutely, we had sleepless nights. Yeah. I worried about it from the start, from the moment I kind of came up with the idea, from the moment we started working on the stories, through when were shooting it, through the edit… but we really wanted to tell that story. It was really important. It was part of the reason I took the job doing the show, was to tell stories like that.”

The Doctor herself, Jodie Whittaker, shared some praise for guest star Vinette Robinson, who played the role of Rosa Parks. “She absolutely smashed it, and was incredible on set,” Whittaker enthused, before going on to say that “you appreciate the responsibility she had in that episode, and then just the detail of performance and the subtlety and the beauty of it, and it was really moving.”

This performance helped to alleviate worries about the episode, Whittaker explained: “once we were on set and we saw her, even though we don’t see the edit, I think any kind of anxiety went [away], for us, because we were on set with her, we knew that this story is being told, and she was absolutely the perfect actor to portray this incredible woman in history.”

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Bradley Walsh, who plays Companion Graham on the show, chimed in with an opposing point of view. “Personally, I didn’t feel at all worried in the slightest,” he said, calling Rosa “absolutely my favourite [episode] by a country mile – that and the Partition episode, because I think historical fact is absolutely key. And if you’re in the hands of an exceptional storyteller, then it will work. I couldn’t wait to start working on that. I was thrilled.”

The episode ended up being received very well by a large number of people. As Chibnall remembers it, “We were deluged with calls, emails, letters from parents and kids. Videos on WhatsApp of kids shouting at the TV going “Rosa!” And I’ve never experienced a response to a piece of work like it. It’s really hard to over-stress how phenomenally proud we are of that piece of work.”

Chibnall praised director Mark Tonderai, composer Segun Akinola and the show’s production team (“even the fabric of Rosa’s costume is the original fabric she wore”), while Whittaker sang the praises of Andra Day’s Rise Up (the song which closed out the episode) and Tosin Cole spoke eloquently about the responsibility of the show to tackle timeless topics in its historical episodes.

Cole said: “I’m not saying do it every single episode, but it’s good to have those, you know, monumental episodes where you can have the conversation in the household and socially. And oh, did you hear about that? Yeah, my mum told me this. Or my grandma’s alive, she went through this and that. So I think it’s kind of good to have those conversations and let kids know the past, in order for them to make a better future.”

Bradley Walsh rounded up the chat nicely, and had a whole room of journalists laughing, when he said this: “Here’s something interesting – had that episode not had an alien in it, and if the BBC would have spent the money making that into a one-off standalone drama, we probably won an award for that. A big award, simple as that. And that’s the beauty of this show, but it wouldn’t have had an alien in it.”

To learn how the success of Rosa has given the Doctor Who team more confidence, click this next link to hear about Chris Chibnall’s quest to bring the show “up a level” in series 12.

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