Toby Whithouse, known by many as the creator of Being Human and The Game, and a recurring writer on Doctor Who (so far he’s written for David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s versions of the iconic Time Lord), has a wonderful one-man show on in London at the moment.
It’s called Executioner Number One, and it takes place in an alternate version of the present day. In this parallel world, a referendum was held in Britain after the 1974 IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham, asking one massive question to the British public: should Britain reinstate the death penalty for murder?
Whithouse’s script imagines that the vote passed in a landslide. Years later, an awkward chap named Ian (who Whithouse portrays) is a part-time hangman with lofty aspirations to become Britain’s big chief of institutionalised murder, Executioner Number One.
Ian’s opinions are very much on the far right side of things, and yet you can’t help but laugh – a lot – as he delivers an hour-long ramble to the audience about the world, his place in it, and the promotion of the dreams. With this slice of smart and scary satire, Whithouse has delivered something brilliant.
Whithouse chatted to us on the phone about the play, which is on at the Soho Theatre until April 15th, and a little bit about his next Doctor Who script. Here’s how it went…
First things first, that moustache, how long have you had to live with it?
[Laughs] The moustache? It’s been residence since the first preview, and the moment I finish the last performance it’s coming off, by popular demand.
So, that central idea of Britain wanting to bring back the death penalty, when did that come to you?
Um, it was quite while… it was a few years ago, and actually what happened was that I’d been kind of passing around trying to find, to come up with an idea for a short film, that I could write and direct, but not star in. And then, I’d been playing with lots of different ideas…
What normally happens with all my stuff is it all comes from an idea for a character, and so I had this idea for the character, and the world, and then it kind of spun out from that really. And I’ve always been quite interested by the death penalty, and all of that, and the process of it. And so, as ever, they’re always a kind of amalgamation of ideas, with lots of disparate influences and references and so on. They all kind of pull together.
And when did you settle on the 1974 bombings as this sort of jumping off point?
I did this show The Game a while ago, and that was set in the 1970s, and during the research for that I saw some footage of a protest march in the wake of the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings, and there was just somebody with a placard and a noose talking about bringing back [the death penalty]. And that for some reason that image kind of stuck with me.
So, and then, again… the thing is, all of these things sort of get stored in your subconscious, and then when I was putting the idea for the play together, that image popped back in my head and it seems like an appropriate moment. I think it was quite important that, for the play, it wasn’t a recent phenomenon. That this was something that had happened quite a while ago, which meant that it had sort of faded into the background and just become part of a society that was, up until this point, utterly unremarkable.
So that seemed like a good sort of turning point, to work on from there.
And when did you realise that this was gradually becoming less of a dystopia, and more something that doesn’t seem that far off?
Well this is the weird thing. It’s kind of… I’d just finished it, finished the first draft, in about April 2015, and it really was a very sort of farfetched, slightly sci-fi, almost sort of dystopian flight of fancy. Pre-Brexit, and pre-Trump, and all of that.
And gradually, over time, it became increasingly kind of… I had no intention of writing anything remotely kind of topical or prescient. And you know, I would much prefer that politically and socially things were much more stable and this was much more of a fantastical nonsense than being as relevant as it has been.
I take it that the YouGov poll, about the number of Brexit voters that would like to bring back the death penalty, ended up under your nose quite quickly?
Yeah, I mean, that was something that people have talked about for quite a while. Which is why, there are certain things that should be thrown over to the public, and there are certain things that actually it’s the responsibility of the government to, you know…
Like with Brexit, things just get hijacked by politics, and actually this is much more important than politics. I vehemently believe we shouldn’t have had a vote on a referendum on the membership of the EU. We certainly shouldn’t have one on capital punishment.
Have you made many edits to the script recently because of what’s been going on?
There were two bits that changed. Originally, it was an act of parliament that had brought back the death penalty. Just routine voting in the House Of Commons. Um, so I changed that to a referendum and light of Brexit, and then I added one line, which was, when a character talks about all of the great things that have happened since the referendum. I added the line “we’ve been free from experts”, inspired by Michael Gove’s quote that we don’t need experts.
Going back to how the character came first, how did Ian come to you? Where did the idea come from?
I don’t really know. They all…. because this happened with the beginning series of Being Human, the characters for that all arrived completely fully formed. And um, similarly with The Game. And there’s no sort of rhyme or reason to it, they just sort of are what they are. They arrive.
I remember when I was an actor I did a couple of plays about the Holocaust, and did a lot of research into that, and what fascinated me more than the big kind of architecture of the Holocaust, was the… it relied on people like Ian. It relied on people to draw up the train time tables, and to load people onto the trains, and build the huts and stuff like that.
I find that infinitely more fascinating than the big sort of policy decisions. It’s about the kind of drones, and the workers, and the administrators, and the engineers and the train drivers. In a way, that’s kind of more cautionary and more frightening. Because there will always be despots like Hitler of Putin or Trump, people like that, and actually they rely on a whole infrastructure of people like Ian.
And I think those are the people we have to watch for, those are the people that are kind of more frightening than the madmen in charge. The people who facilitate and who put these things into practise. You know, there’s a line in the play when Ian is given this horrific task, he’s told the decisions have been made by the people above them. He says, “they are the architects and we the engineers”, and that I think is just a fascinating concept.
Definitely. And when did it come about that you would be playing him?
Um, I can’t really remember. It was kind of just a gradual process. But, um, I think that certainly, having realised that I couldn’t make it work as a short film, I tried it as a traditional play with lots of characters, and again I couldn’t quite get it to work. And so, then I started writing it as this extended monologue. And suddenly it sounded… I realised, actually, I really wanted to do it. And I think it also it was partly… I’d not had a particularly pleasant experience on the series I’d done just before that, The Game, and so I kind of wanted to do something different, and use a different bit of my body, and challenge myself in a different way.
Part of the challenge must’ve been making him funny but not making him too sympathetic?
Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. And thing is of course, everyone, the audience is constantly very different. I had friends in last night and some of them were saying, actually, they felt pretty sympathetic towards him. And they could kind of, not empathise with him, but understand him. Whereas to others, of course, he’s utterly repellent.
And have you had anyone come up to you afterwards that thinks Ian has got it spot-on?
When I was Googling around today I saw that you also staged your first play at the Soho Theatre. It must be a special place for you?
Yeah, I had two shows here before this. Um, in 2000 and 2005. And it was fantastic. The first play [Jump Mr Maniloff, Jump] really sort of launched my career. And so, it is fantastic to be back there.
And one of the many things I loved about the play was the set design, with all the little compartments. Were those all ideas you had during writing, or did they come through conversations with the set design people? How did this set come together?
The thing is, we had to be very mindful, there are certain constraints by having it in the studio theatre up there. Because it has to be a set that can be easily contained. Because our show finishes at about five past eight, and within half an hour, forty minutes, there’s another show going on in there. So it had to be quite contained.
And because I’d worked with Andrew [Purcell, the set designer] before, because he was the designer on Being Human. So I knew that this was somebody that actually really rose to challenges. Because the budget on Being Human was so tiny. And he always pulled off weekly miracles on Being Human, by just working with an incredibly constrained budget.
So I knew that he would be able to meet the challenges of the space and of the turnaround.
The fact that is has to be so intimate makes it feel like you’re almost in someone’s living room, doesn’t it?
Yeah, yeah yeah, it is a very intimate piece. It’s something that could only really work in a studio space, I don’t think it’s a big amphitheatre play. And again, I was really happy with it going on in the studio there. It feels like exactly the right place for it.
And have you got any plans to take the show on tour at all, or do a filmed version of it?
Err, not at the moment, and one of the first conversations that me and my producer had when we sat down to talk about it, months and months and months ago, was… she said, ‘What do you want this to lead to? What do you want to happen with it?’ And I said, ‘To be brutally honest, kind of, nothing. I want it to be…”
There are so many times, particularly as an actor, when I’ve done jobs that I didn’t really want to do, just from thinking, you know, this director might use me again for something better and so on and so on. And invariably those jobs turned out to be utterly miserable.
So, consequently, I wanted this to be about this. I wanted this to be about this production, and about this run, and without kind of having a view or having an eye on some kind of notional future. I wanted it to be about… I just wanted to make this production as good as possible. And then, if it leads to something, then fantastic, but if it doesn’t, I’m really not too bothered. I want this bit, this incarnation of it, to be as good as it possibly can be.
To say that now is a great time would sound a bit wrong, but as you’ve gotten closer to putting on this production, it’s just got more and more topical and relevant.
Yeah, and it’s really odd, the response from the audience, especially when you’ve talked about the referendum, you’ve talked about the aspects of it that are much more kind of current, the response from the audience is always quite funny.
Because there is a sort of laugh of recognition that there wouldn’t have been if I had performed it eighteen months ago. So yeah, it’s interesting how it and the audience are kind of responding to current new cycles.
And Ian’s kind of wrapped up in that as well. I can think of so many people, family members and people I know, who have come out of the woodwork recently with this newfound confidence – since Brexit and since Trump – to say these sort of right wing things.
That’s what’s been most kind of terrifying about what’s happened recently. Obviously the reactionary views and so on are not exactly new, but now with Brexit and Trump these views have now become emboldened and suddenly they feel, kind of, their views have been validated.
And of course everyone’s views and opinions are valid, but, you know, I think suddenly there has been this, kind of, quite a jarring lurch to the right that has had an impact in so many ways.
I think these things are cyclical, that this will pass, but certainly, at the moment, the right is the ascendance, and it’s a very scary time. You know, history means nothing. History is being ignored, and I find that very scary.
And is there ever a point where you think, ‘maybe I can’t make a joke about that’?
No, you see, I think then it becomes even more… I think humour and looking at these things in a comical way and in a satirical way becomes even more vital. I think that the moment we stop doing that is the moment that they win. I think that, actually, as I said, satire, comedy… they’re more vital now than ever.
If it’s okay to talk a bit about Doctor Who before I go: I think it was Digital Spy you spoke to, when you said your series 10 episode was the final part of a three-parter. There’s a title going around for it, The Lie Of The Land, is that official?
Yeah, that’s official.
And is it right that it’s the monk monsters from the trailer are what that’s all about?
Err… I genuinely don’t know if I can say. Because I’m not entirely sure I was allowed to say that it was the third part of a three-parter. Um, I kind of glibly said it in an interview, and then it’s been kind of telegraphed around, and now I’m not entirely sure. So I should probably just shut up.
And of course it’s Peter Capaldi’s final series. What will you miss about writing for his Doctor?
Just his wit and his intelligence and his brilliance. I think he’s been a fantastic Doctor, um, and I’ve got to know him quite well and he’s the loveliest, kindest guy in the world. So, I think it’s a great shame that he’s moved on, but I completely understand why. I think he’s been a phenomenal Doctor.
And obviously with Pearl Mackie’s Bill you’re doing something you’ve done before, which is writing for a character before an episode with them in it has actually been broadcast. How do you approach that? Do you get, like, a bible from Steven Moffat of the way she would behave? How does it work?
Um, to be honest, I had the same thing when I wrote for Karen Gillan on Matt Smith’s first series. And, invariably, one works from… so, I had read the first episode of that series [the Karen Gillan one], and the first episode with Pearl. And so, her voice rang out very clearly from that.
Essentially, it’s less complicated than you think, because Steven has written… there were enough scripts for me to read with her voice and with her character, so I could pick it up from there.
Have you got anything lined up for after the play finishes? Can you tell us what you’ll be working on next?
No, I mean, I’ve got a lot of stuff in development. And yeah, sort of lurching from one development project to another at the moment. You know, there’s lots of interesting stuff, I’m very lucky. All of the stuff I’m developing is really interesting, it’s all stuff I’d be really happy to do. But nothing is definite at the moment.
Okay, well I look forward to finding out what they are one day!
And I look forward to being able to tell people.
Toby Whithouse, thank you very much!
Executioner Number One is playing at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 15th April. Tickets can be found here.