As the first series of CBBC’s Wizards vs Aliens draws to a close, we chatted to writer Phil Ford, whose back catalogue includes The Sarah-Jane Adventures, Torchwood, Doctor Who, spin-off Dreamland, The Adventure Games videogame series and much more.
In the first part of the interview, Ford looks back over his early career on ITV’s Coronation Street, Bad Girls, the 2005 revival of Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet, and working with Russell T. Davies…
So, Phil, how did you get into writing?
(Laughs) To be honest, it was the only thing I ever could do. Writing was the only thing I was ever any good at. When I was a kid I remember writing my first ‘story with chapters’ when I was eight called ‘Mission to Saturn’.
Very Ray Bradbury.
(Laughs) Very! Anyway, I wrote that and then I wrote my first novel when I was eleven! Never published, of course. So I’d always been writing, but where I grew up in the Midlands you never thought about going to work in television or film and so I became a journalist.
How long did you do that for?
I did that for about ten years before moving into advertising and somewhere in amongst all that, around the mid-eighties, Amstrad brought out the first home word processor, which I decided to treat myself to as I’d just gotten married. Unfortunately, when I tried to write on it…I got writers block! I just didn’t have the connection to it as I was used to writing prose in longhand and typing it up.
A slight problem for a writer.
You’re telling me! (laughs) Anyway, to get over that I decided to try and write something different and that turned out to be a two-hour television script about a detective who lived on a canal boat which, long story short, ultimately got me both a meeting with a producer at the BBC and an agent.
When was that?
The writing of the script and having the meetings took place over about three or four years, but my agent finally took me on in 1994. Then I had two years of going out and seeing people and having meetings before I got my first commission, which was a Taggart three-parter called Beserker.
Was Taggart (Mark McManus) still in the show at this point?
No, I think it was the second series after he’d died, but it was still in the three-part format they’d used when he was alive. But while I was still working on Taggart, I got Coronation Street.
How’d you get Corrie?
Well, it’s the bizarre thing about going off and having lots of meetings with different script editors and producers. I had a meeting with a guy called Paul Marquess (who’d go on to create Footballers’ Wives) who was a script editor at Granada at the time and was looking at bringing back a daytime drama called Crown Court. Now that series never happened, but later on Paul moved to Corrie and never hired me! (laughs) However, when Paul left he told his successor Anne McManus to call me in for a meeting, which she did.
How long were you on Corrie?
I did eighty-six episodes between 1997 and 2002. I loved doing Corrie and in this industry, while there’s no such thing as a ‘secure’ job, that was the closest thing.
Why’d you leave?
They sacked me! (laughs) It was the usual change of producer story, but it was funny as the day I got the call I’d been on the phone to a friend who used to work on the show and said to him “I think I’ve had enough…” . And then two hours later I’m calling him back to say ‘You’ll never believe what just happened…” (laughs)
How many Corries were you writing in any given year?
Oh, it varied. But in my last year I think I wrote over twenty episodes, which was a hell of a lot.
How many times a week was the show airing then?
I think it was three times a week when I started and then it went to four.
It’s a real sausage machine for writers, isn’t it?
It is, but because it’s a sausage machine it’s a really good proving ground. Writers have to be able to get this stuff right within a couple of drafts. And two-to-three drafts is generally as much time as you have because of the turnaround.
Interestingly, Russell T. Davies once referred to you as someone who can “nail the format” of a show. Do you think that comes from your soap background or your journalistic/advertising experience?
I think it’s a bit of everything. I think it’s partly because of my journalistic background, partly because of my experience working on different types of shows, but it’s also a result of my misspent youth watching a lot of telly! (laughs)
There are no wasted years!
Parallel to Corrie you were also working on Bad Girls, right?
That’s right. Brian Park was the producer on Corrie when I was there, but he left with Anne Mcmanus and Maureen Chadwick (another writer on Corrie) and went off and formed Shed Productions and when they were putting together Bad Girls (which ran from 1999 to 2006) I got the call. I wrote for every series of that show and even wrote the final episode…although it was never intended to be the last one.
When did Gerry Anderson come calling?
The Gerry Anderson connection came from a sample script I wrote called Stag Hunt, which had no connection to sci-fi whatsoever, but which was optioned by Mentorn Productions. Anyway, the head of drama at Mentorn was a guy called John Needham who’d previously produced Gerry’s early 90s series, Space Precinct. Anyway, John and I became quite good friends and, although nothing ever happened with the optioned script, John later left Mentorn and formed a new company, Anderson Entertainment, with Gerry.
So when did you first meet Gerry?
I first met Gerry around 1999/2000 over at Pinewood about working on a new live action sci-fi show which I ended up writing two pilot scripts for.
Were you a big fan of his work?
Of course! I first met Gerry on his seventieth birthday and while we were having this meeting at Pinewood there was a knock on the door and this guy comes in with a bottle of champagne and says: “Gerry, we’ve never met, but I heard it was your birthday and I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ because it was your shows that got me into the industry.” I heard so many stories like that while working with Gerry. People who’d gone into film and TV, people who’d become pilots…some who’d even joined NASA! All off the back of watching the shows that Gerry made. Which is also why making shows for kids is really important.
So when was Captain Scarlet first mooted?
It was probably mooted in 2002. John and Gerry had been trying to get the rights to Scarlet for some time. In fact, when we’d been talking about working on the other show there was talk of doing Scarlet then as a live-action movie.
But the series was eventually CG animation?
That’s right. And I think it was a much better way of doing it. We managed to make twenty-six mini-movies as a result of doing it that way.
Am I right in saying you wrote twenty-three of the twenty-six episodes?
Something like that.
How’d that happen?
I was available! (laughs) I’d been sacked off Corrie by then and I got on really well with Gerry. There wasn’t really a script editor on that show, it was just me and Gerry sitting down and talking it through.
I can remember watching the show as it aired and thinking it was really well written. And not only compared to the original show, but to contemporary kids shows at the time.
Thank you. I think the original series, as wonderful as it was…well, there wasn’t a lot of character there and that was what I wanted to bring to it. Thankfully, Gerry was more than up for that. Also, being a CG show meant we had a bigger canvas for action and scale.
Was Scarlet always your favourite Anderson property?
It was. I mean, I appreciate Thunderbirds and the rest of the puppet shows, but Scarlet was always my favourite as a kid mainly because the central concept/character was much stronger and darker. And that’s what we tried to deliver on.
Captain Scarlet was both your entry into writing sci-fi/fantasy and children’s television, which then led to your fruitful collaboration with both Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner down at BBC Wales.
How’d that come about?
Well, by that time Doctor Who had come back and the first series was airing and I got my agent to get me into the BAFTA screening of The Parting of the Ways (the season one finale) specifically to meet Russell. Actually, I’d met Russell briefly before at an ITV do around the time of Queer As Folk, but we didn’t really know each other.
So did you meet him at that screening?
Yes, I introduced myself and he knew me immediately! He and Julie both loved Captain Scarlet and I was basically there to beg him for a job on Doctor Who.
Which finally happened some time later.
Some considerable time later! But anyway, Russell said that we should find something to work on together – which was nice! – and then a while later I got a call from Julie saying that they’d got a new show they were putting together that they’d like me to write for and that turned out to be The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Sarah Jane was initially launched with a one hour special on New Years Day 2007, while the subsequent series aired later that same year. Were you initially only brought onboard for a single story?
Yeah, as far as I was aware it was just for one story. My original pitch was an idea about Ancient Egypt, which they ultimately didn’t use as they had a similar idea in the works for Doctor Who.
Which they never used.
And still haven’t! So then I pitched another idea, which eventually became the Eye of the Gorgon, which was the second story of the season.
How’d you go from writing a single episode to writing the first season finale?
Well, what happened was that Russell was due to write it, but was behind on scripts for Doctor Who – I think he was busy doing that year’s Christmas special – so I was asked to pitch in and write the finale (The Lost Boy). It was an absolute gift because Russell said he knew quite clearly the first ten or fifteen minutes of the episode, but beyond that didn’t have a clue what happened. So he pitched me that opening, which was amazing, and then I came up with the rest of the story. It was great to do and a really fantastic story…even if I do say so myself! (laughs)
So clearly they liked what you did enough to ask you back for series two.
On the back of that Julie gave me a call and asked me whether I’d like to come back on the second series as lead writer and co-producer.
Was that a surprise?
It was a shock. It literally came out of the blue. It’s one of those moments where you literally remember where you were and exactly what you were doing when you got the phone call. I was with my wife having lunch in a garden centre! (laughs) And I thought for a nano-second about doing it before saying ‘yes’. And then, after I put the phone down, I remember thinking: ‘God, series one was so good and we’ve got to leap that bar again!’
Series two, I would say, is not as good as the first series, but is notable for writing out lead girl Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) and bringing in Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra). How involved were you in the process of casting Rani?
I wasn’t involved in the casting and I don’t really remember expressing a viewpoint. Obviously, I saw tapes, but Anji was so brilliant it was never a contentious decision.
For me, Rani’s character doesn’t seem that distinctive in series two. Almost like the scripts were written with Maria’s character in mind.
Hmmmm….I’m not sure I’d agree. I always had a good idea of who Rani was and where she was coming from. Of course there are similarities with Maria, she’s a young female in an adventure show after all, but there aren’t that many.
I think what I’m trying to say is that those differences really become apparent in subsequent seasons.
I think the thing is you become more comfortable with the character and the actor playing the part. And she had much longer to develop the character, which always makes a huge difference.
Come back later in the week for the concluding part of our chat with Phil Ford, and read our reviews of Wizards VS Aliens’ first series, here.
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