Matthew Graham interview: Childhood’s End, Syfy, Doctor Who

We chat to screenwriter Matthew Graham about Syfy miniseries Childhood's End, US TV and why he's not doing any more Doctor Who...

Matthew Graham was the co-creator and co-executive producer of hit shows Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, and he’s just brought Childhood’s End to the screen in the US. 

Here’s the second of two interviews we’ve done with Matthew. The first took us behind the scenes on the development of the seemingly abandoned live-action Star Wars TV show he was hand-picked by George Lucas to work on, while this one looks at Childhood’s End, as well as what he’s up to now…

How have you found Syfy? They’ve gone through a big transition in recent years, and really seem to be behind science fiction television again.

I think that’s true. Two years ago, when I sat down to start talking to Syfy about Childhood’s End, which is something they wanted to do, Mark Stern – the previous network head of drama – had left. Bill McGoldrick had taken over, and Bill had come from USA, which is a very character-based network.

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Bill was very keen to bring real science fiction back onto the network. Obviously, Syfy has a foot in both camps. It can’t be too experimental. It’s not going to start making Solaris. But it’s aware that it had become maybe too populist, and got away from its science fiction roots.

12 Monkeys was a show that was starting to take the network back in that direction, and then really they had two things they wanted to usher in a new era with: Childhood’s End and Expanse. Which they felt was a mission statement for saying ‘bring us your smart sci-fi’.

The first episode alone of The Expanse utterly blurs the lines between cinema and television. Whatever you think of the show, the sheer love and production values are evident from the very start.

I’d very much say that applies to Childhood’s End as well. Everything we did, it felt like we were making a movie. We got the very best crews, our production designer designed District 9, and one of the art directors on Lord Of The Rings. Costume designer was from Lord Of The Rings.

Our DoP, Neville Kidd, had just won an Emmy for Sherlock. Nick Hurran came to us from directing Sherlock and Doctor Who. I was executive producer, so people like Nick were hired because I’d said let’s make this look like a cross between a US show and a really classy BBC drama. Let’s do that. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it as a drama, but whatever faults you find with it as a story, you cannot fault its production values. They are top.

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Do you feel this trend in television vindicates you to a degree? I remember when you were doing Bonekickers, you took a lot of kicks for that. But the idea was you wanted a blockbuster movie on a television screen every week? That was back in, what, 2007?

Yes. That’s a very nice way to put it, to turn Bonekickers into an act of prophecy [laughs]. I think that the mistake I made with Bonekickers was making it a 9pm show. I really think it boiled down to that. But in terms of style, it’s almost slightly annoying for us now in television, that now that TV has become the cool thing to do, all the big movie hitters are muscling in on TV! You go and pitch to a US network now and Martin Scorsese has just been in! You go, “oh fuck off!” [Laughs]. 

I think what is true to say is that television and movies now, TV is no longer the poor cousin to cinema. If you think about it, even in terms of the delivery method, we are almost indistinguishable. The Force Awakens is available to watch on a 70” television, and it only feels like it opened yesterday. Television now looks like a movie, most people now have at least a 40” TV. A lot of people have surround sound.

But also, lots of people watch shows on their phone screen.

They do. But people watch movies on their phone!

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I just watched and loved the last season of Fargo. The cinematography, the production values were the equivalent of any $50m movie. The cast was a movie cast!

They don’t make $50m movies any more.

That’s right!

The other thing with television though over the last decade, it’s not just the cinematic values. Movies once upon a time were tackling the adult and grown-up subjects, and now it seems odd to me – and I’m not objecting – that now on TV you get subjects that were previously guarded by an 18 certificate at the box office. You watch them freely. And yet when you go to the cinema, you get more broader targeting, and a growing prevalence of 12A.

I think that’s right. I think there are still some smart movies to be found at the cinema. But I used to be desperate to write in movies. I still do film stuff for people. But I don’t feel that I’m missing out any more, in the way that I once did. I think I’m just as happy developing big, exciting television.

You went to America to develop movies though, didn’t you?

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I did. And I spend a lot of my time now in America. I’m developing more for American television now than I am for the UK, by choice. Also, I think, television is international now. When I see a company about a TV show, they often talk about developing something for Channel 4 or the BBC.  I’m talking about a big science fiction show now between an American film company and we’re talking to Sky about it too. In turn, shows made now in the UK are almost instantaneously being watched in the US. Everything’s changed. It’s an international market now.

Did you catch Channel 4’s Humans last year? That was one of the best examples of a co-production I’ve seen in years?

It was, and I was in America watching Humans on AMC.

I did always wonder with co-productions if you get too many cooks. But even now, that seems to have calmed down a bit.

Well I think that’s because of the nature of television production, and how it’s changed. In the past, the Brits didn’t know how to work with the Americans. And I include writers first and foremost with that.

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Writing in this country has traditionally been men in very baggy sweaters, sitting in little terraced houses, trying to write about the state of the print union in the 1980s. Now, there are people all over this country, sitting there in Star Wars T-shirts coming up with high-concept ideas, but they have the backing of the industry.

People like Sam Vincent, who co-created Humans, cut his teeth on things like Spooks. He’s not just some newbie. He’s a good writer who knows how to write for television, and is experienced. He takes responsibility and has an ethos that’s inherently more international. And he can work with the Americans. I can too. I don’t sit there saying it’s too warm here, they don’t have proper tea, why are they all so brash. That’s the inherent snobbery and nature of the British.

Did it help you personally in getting through the door in the US that one of your shows was remade by people who, let’s say, didn’t quite get it?

Yes. Having Life On Mars remade by ABC definitely pushed my profile up. What it did actually do was highlight to a lot of people, to my benefit, what we got right with the UK version. They watched it and said we can see the things that we didn’t do so well. And I think that did help in a way, yes.

Where are you now then? You’re back in the UK, but regularly in the US. Are you still involved in the short film, R’ha?

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Yeah. I’m a producer on it, and did some scriptwriting too. I did work with the director for quite a while on it. But Kaleb [Lechowski] has such a specific vision for it, that I felt personally he wrote the script and develop the movie, and I’d act as a producer on it with Rick. I’m still involved, but I’m very much focuses on other things.

Because I was the showrunner on Childhood’s End, I’m keen to continue developing TV series. I’m working on a couple of shows at the moment, one with Akiva Goldsman – who I worked with on Childhood’s End – and we’re doing another one with Universal TV. Then I have another I’m developing with Gaumont, who made Hannibal. A big Hollywood star attached to it, very exciting, but can’t say more at this stage!

And one more thing: are your Doctor Who days behind you, do you think?

Behind me, yes. It was lovely to work on it. I think it’s fabulous Chris Chibnall has got that gig, but I just want to pursue my own path now, though!

Matthew Graham, thank you very much!