Wednesday, 12 January 2011

David Morrissey & Toby Whithouse

Kerensa Bryant meets Being Human writer Toby Whithouse
My name is Kerensa Creswell-Bryant, and I’m a Being Human addict. There, I’ve said it. Since the first trailer for series one aired back in 2009, I’ve been under the series’ spell. After all what is there not to love about a high-concept comedy-drama based on the controversies of the human condition and the mystical lore trappings of a ghost, werewolf and vampire cohabiting in a two-up, two-down in Bristol? Not to mention a cast of three of the UK’s most talented rising stars and hot off the press confirmation that there is to be a spin-off?

Possibly two of the sharpest dressers ever to have graced The Space stage and both with impressive links to the Doctor Who franchise, actor David Morrissey and Being Human writer Toby Whithouse charmed us and edified us with their personal ascents to stellar heights…

The writer, the pun and the agoraphobic ghost

Suited, booted and looking dapper in suit and tie, creative virtuoso Toby Whithouse comes across as a natural to the limelight, as he is passed a mic and begins an evening with us at Komedia, Brighton.  BBC Three, the channel that deems itself ‘The digital TV channel that’s never afraid to try something new’ has stood up to its title, having given great support to Toby and Being Human, since the initial pilot stage which, although initially pipped to the commissioning post by another series (Phoo Action, anyone?), was received so well by the UK viewers it caused an online frenzy, setting chat forums and message boards aflame with such lust even Nosferatu and his pallid tones would have blushed.

 But Being Human has been a true labour of love for Toby.  Asked to write a drama about three people living in a house share vexed by issues on the heavier side of life, Toby would immediately agree with you; sounds boring. “Thinking up the main 3 characters was easy as they landed fully formed. There was Mitchell; the recovering sex addict; George who had anger issues; and Annie, the borderline agrophobe. The supernatural archetypes were added on after during one meeting (a year down the line of redrafts) when I just suggested ‘why don’t we make George into a werewolf’. Then we made Annie into a ghost and Mitchell into a vampire.” Evidently, out of flippancy, a cult series can be born.

But you can’t have a hit series on just a great idea. Another notch in the key to the series success is the language used. Through his other works on Doctor Who, Torchwood and No Angels, Toby clearly demonstrates a tellurian connection to how people really converse. “Life never exists in one tonal voice, or just one genre that it never deviates from. Life is full of right hand turns. Every line of dialogue I write I’ll try and say it out loud at least once as it’s easily written, but doesn’t necessarily sound real.” It’s the character development through the dialogue (and of course some impressive acting skills from the cast) that lead you to bond with an 80s mod ghost who listens to The Smiths on repeat and makes you cheer on an awkward goofy werewolf asking a girl out on a date with real endearment.

Being a production for BBC Three meant that, naturally, there is only a small budget in place to pull off the more phenomenal elements within the episodes. “We worked out early on that we couldn’t afford CGI, which meant we had to go down other avenues and opt for animatronics. But I think this actually really enhances Being Human, as things like a simple chase scene seem far more real than if the actors are reacting to a man running with a stick with sensors on.”

“Like many of the best series I’m a fan of, for example, Sapphire and Steel, part of its charm is that it looks like it was made for £7. Being on such tight budgets meant that stories were told by inference – you would hear the monster scratching at the door.”

Toby then elaborated with surprisingly fantastic insight into another way the budget affects what we end up seeing on screen: “I’ve had people tell me ‘wow death’s door – having a door through to death! That’s so clever - how did you think of it?’ But it was literally because a door was all we had left in the props department.” It’s not just the visuals that are affected by budgets, but it alters the way future scripts are planned: “On most UK shows, there isn’t enough finance on each re-commissioning of the next series to get the same cast back necessarily, so we have to work out who we have got, then we can script the series accordingly. We could script an amazing story for George’s character, for example, that spans 7 series, but if you lose the actor… it’s the nature of media future.”

On writing

Coming from an acting background (most known for his role in BBCs The House of Elliott) meant that Toby had a lot of time on his hands. “There was never a moment where I thought ‘I want to be a writer – it just happened. I was getting scripts that I thought ‘this is just awful’. I had this gag in my head that eventually I just wrote down. I kept on going and it just evolved into a first draft of a play and it took on a life of its own.” Before he knew it, said play had won a Verity Bargate award and recognition as a writer and opportunities to write for TV ensued. “Plays are great, but something about TV I love is that it exists forever.”

Doctor Who

With an amused boyish grin, Toby recounted to us one of his first conversations with former Doctor Who Executive Producer Russell T Davies: “When I first was asked to write for Doctor Who it was David Tennant’s first series. With an air of rising excitement, Russell said to me ‘we really need to up the momentum- we’re up against Ant and Dec!’”

The first Whovian spawn to come out of Toby’s labour was the School Reunion episode, where we got to see a heartfelt comeback for old companion Sarah-Jane Smith and animated dog K-9: “There was a genuine nervousness for me at this time. Russell T and David Moffat and even David Tennant are all total geeks when it comes to Doctor Who. But I didn’t know all the complexities and all the over- overarching story lines. I’m lucky I’m not too nerdy, otherwise I could have got bogged down in ancient details; I would have been very nervous.”

Toby also went on to write a second episode for the latest series, Vampires of Venice, which sees Matt Smith amply filling the Doctor’s shoes: “Matt Smith’s character was so beautifully written, so it was easy writing for the new series.  I think Steven Moffat is a genius – the closest thing the nation can get to genius - his writing is the closest thing you get to exhilaration.”

Other writers Toby listed off in the admiration stakes include, from the US: Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and David Simon (The Wire). Musing about David; “He says ‘you should never have to use exposition to set up the back story for a series’. The audience will pick it up gradually over time. You shouldn’t have to laboriously explain. Annoyingly, the notes I always get back on the scripts I write are things like ‘I’m not sure if the audience is going to get this – can it be explained more for them to understand?’”

Having the power to make me laugh one sentence, then to have me in floods of tears the next, followed by a messy both-at-the-same-time, I feel it fitting to say that Toby is a locution mancer of the modern day lexicon.  But what does he think is the secret ingredient to penned prosperity? “It’s about never changing what you do, but to wait for the world to catch up and see sense in you. If you alter your voice to follow fashion, your voice will sound hollow. You have to write constantly. It’s like being an athlete. You have to build it up like a muscle; turn out pages and pages of absolute rubbish. It’s about the clarity of your own voice – this will make you successful. If you write and write and write, your own voice will define itself and it’s what will make you employable. I wrote the Being Human scripts thinking ‘no-one is ever going to make, let alone read, this’. I wasn’t writing for an audience and this is when your voice comes out.”

Kerensa Bryant meets Being Human writer Toby Whithouse

Northern Star

He’s starred alongside leading ladies including Sharon Stone, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. His acting repertoire covers gritty BBC dramas to Hollywood blockbusters. He’s also a successful director and can belt out a tune posing as a seaside mobster. His name is David Morrissey. No, not the one from Men Behaving Badly, the one from the Doctor Who Christmas Special!

Kerensa Bryant meets Doctor Who actor David MorrisseyIn dark frames and sporting a side parting the dandies of yesteryear would be proud of, you can understand the particularly busy autograph queue, full of ladies, I may add, at the end of the night’s event. With his northern twang still very much intact, despite his various stints across the pond, David Morrissey sat casually, answering questions from Lisa Holloway, on his career highs and the very rare lows.

Spotted in his tender teens playing a scally in One Summer was the start of it all. The supine world had sat up and taken notice. All of a sudden David was being recognised in his local surroundings of Liverpool: “It was weird getting into cabs and getting looked at twice and having people look at you strangely in bars. In those days back in Liverpool, if you were looked at in a funny way; well it meant you were in trouble.”

Not scared of taking on the challenge of darker, more melancholic roles (most recently playing a corrupt policeman at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders in Channel 4’s Red Riding) David admits it’s not all red carpets and wrap parties: “I’ve played lots of characters going down the toilet; mad, bad and sad. It’s hard. When I’m playing a character that’s having a breakdown for example, it’s tough. During the day it makes me emotionally unavailable (to his family), I’m very aware where my energies are available. I’m an interpretive actor. I like to get lost in a place and a space.”

But it’s not just an actor’s family that is subject to the lesser admitted negatives of the acting industry, there’s another element that even A-listers are susceptible to: “I remember coming to the end of a job when I was starring alongside John Hurt (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). He was getting progressively more and more jumpy as the days passed and I asked him why. He told me it was because he didn’t have another job to go on to. I almost pleaded with him ‘please tell me this feeling gets better with age’- but it doesn’t; it gets worse! But when I was younger and if you’d have shown me a snapshot of my life at 40, I’d have snapped your hand off.”

Move David onto the subject of Blackpool, where he played Ripley Holden, a tough talking arrogant casino owner, and the mood shifts and David springs into animated vim: “Blackpool came along and I was so scared to do it, I had to. David Tennant and I were doing a scene where we have to tango together – obviously I was the male lead (the audience ripples with titters), when he turned to me and laughed ‘we’re never going to work again’”.

Known for taking his roles seriously and being big on researching his roles, it’s not a surprise that he has won considerable acclaim for his role as Gordon Brown in The Deal. Not only did he put on two stone for the role, but he shadowed Peter Mandelson around the Houses of Parliament, made trips to Gordon Brown's hometown and immersed himself in the various biographies surrounding our current Prime Minister, but also fashioned a very bespoke trait: “Kirkcaldy, where Gordon Brown grew up it had a strong smell like glue (it was a hub for linoleum production), so I imagined no one would want to breathe through their noses. I mimicked an alternative face as if I was gulping for air and its part of how I got into his character.”

“Gordon Brown also bites his nails all the time – you see him fiddling his papers because he wants to be biting them, he’s just terrible in public from a pathologically frivolity. He’s not a natural smiler, it’s secondary to him, especially next to Tony Blair who’s a smile on legs!”

Asked if he would ever consider playing him again: “If the script was there, I’d never say never. I love the whole story surrounding him at that time, the man that should be king and the man that usurped him. It was a fascinating role to play”. But did it ever tempt him to be a politician himself? “You’ve got to be so careful. It’s a strange place to be. I feel for him. You want politicians to be driven, intelligent people, but we knock them for things they shouldn’t be necessarily knocked for. I was fascinated by the election campaign and how Gordon got tagged as ‘unlucky’.”

Evidently not scared taking a risk on the roles on offer, Hollywood beckoned. Basic Instinct 2 came along. It was a flop. But not one for dwelling on disappointingly jaundiced box office sales, David spoke with zest about his experience: “Any job you go into is a leap of faith. I loved Basic Instinct 1 and I loved Sharon Stone. What I did learn from working on this film is that I had to look after myself. As an actor you want to look for that company set up and feeling. But on big US films you have to look after your own thing.”

David comes across as a patrician of empathy; he can turn his understanding of a character into gold and shine. But he asks for respect back in equal measure from co-workers: “I remember seeing that Christian Bale clip, the one where he goes berserk at a lighting operator who distracts him during a scene. I was right behind him. You can have all the time in the world setting up the lighting, but as soon as the director shouts ‘action’, then that’s my time.”

Another shift in mood required, my favourite anecdote of the night came from the mention of scantily clad intimate scenes and whether he found them awkward to watch with his family: “It’s hard as you’re trying to make something untrue appear very real. For one role I was sent to a gym to tone up. I took my wife and mum to the premier and then a scene came on where I walk into the kitchen wearing just a towel and my wife turns to me, points to the screen and whispers – ‘we need that fridge’. I’m sat there in shock thinking ‘what about my abs!’ And no, we never got that fridge, AND I lost the abs.”

Finally, as parting food for thought for aspiring creative types in the audience, David imparted some sage advice for getting into the industry: “You have to get out there and just do it. Grab your mates for an audience and act or direct. You can make notes and even video yourself on mobiles phones; there’s no excuse. You can only learn by doing, not just through reading books or through lectures. Also, you should find a good writer. The story and the script is everything.”
Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 19:18