Scifipulse recently had the honour of interviewing Christopher Bidmead. Best known for his work on Doctor Who as a script editor during the 1980s. Mr. Bidmead has written for Personal Computer World, PC Plus and New Scientist magazines. Further to that he has worked as a journalist for Wired magazine. As well as writing the Big Finish audio play Renaissance of the Daleks. During this interview, Mr. Bidmead discusses how the TV industry has changed as well as his pick for the 14th Doctor.
SFP: What made you want to be a writer?
Christopher Bidmead: At prep school (aged about 12) I had no idea of being a writer – I just wrote. Scribbling away with a leaky biro at my own stuff in class when I should have been paying attention, and under the blankets in the dorm at night by the light of a torch.
George V. Higgins says in his book “On Writing” something to the effect that if you want to know if you’re a writer or not, just ask yourself – have I always written? Wanting to be a writer is no good. And Higgins implies that just writing is no good. To be a writer you need always to have written.
SFP: How has the TV industry changed since you were writing for Harriet’s Back In Town in the 1970s?
Christopher Bidmead: Oh, hugely. Everything was small back then. The circle of lucky TV writers was small, the budgets were small, the screen was small. Which meant that it was mostly talking heads with the maximum reliance on dialogue.
The money was decent, though. Allowing for inflation maybe better than most writers get today.
Now TV is competing directly with movies. Big domestic 16:9 screens can now accommodate long shots properly so scripts today can show rather than just tell the story.
Christopher Bidmead: “Process” is a grand name for it. The time pressure was huge. When I first signed up I would have liked to watch a number of the old shows to get up to speed but there was no time for that. I did just about have time to read a pile of earlier scripts. Reading on trains is a great way to get through scripts faster than real-time and I used to just get on a train go somewhere and come back for no other reason.
Peter (Davison) was a very different proposition from Tom (Baker). But this was, after all, still the Doctor. I didn’t feel we needed a different character. But with Peter I thought the flavour of the stories might change and I did deliberately structure Castrovalva quite differently.
SFP: What are some common mistakes that you see young writers and journalists making?
Christopher Bidmead: Probably the common mistake that journalists make these days is becoming journalists. Print magazines are evaporating, and with shrinking staff the pressures are appalling and the money is peanuts. Web publication potentially opens up some marvelous new freedoms for writers. But on most of the websites any good work they do disappears under a flurry of advertisements.
I watch very little television these days. It seems to me much of it is still stuck back in the days of talking heads. Far too little television drama is character-driven – the few shows I’ve watched recently tend to be plotted out on graph paper, the characters then being mechanically frogmarched from plot point to plot point.
The gurus are always advising writers to “structure your story and know your ending.” For me, that takes the adventure out of it. “The last thing I want to do is spoil a book with plot. The plot is the last resort of bad writers.” I didn’t say that – it was Stephen King.
I don’t think in terms of “young writers”. They are just good writers, not so good writers and Dan Brown.
The big mistake the not so good writers make is to write with words. Just words.
Words are only the necessary end product. The characters and the story are a whirl/world of thoughts, sights, smells, experiences and feelings that words will never do justice to. You just have to pin all that down as best you can with as few of the bloody things as you can get away with.
SFP: What was your reasoning for introducing hard science into the 4th Doctor’s era?
Christopher Bidmead: Ah, reasoning… It was actually my brief from Barry Letts. Which I very happily agreed to.
In fact I think I must have got the job in the first place because when John Nathan-Turner, who was doing all the talking at the job interview, asked me what I thought of the few shows I’d managed to watch since being invited to apply, I said I thought they were rather silly.
At this point, Barry’s eyes lit up and he took over the conversation. He told me that the original idea of the show had been to illustrate to the young audience the potential of the scientific way of thinking about the world. This sounded to me like something worthwhile.
SFP: What are you working on at the moment?
Christopher Bidmead: I’m curating a Web publication called Tested Technology and writing film scripts on spec.
Actually, I’ve learned to not call them film scripts. A good spec script has an independent life from the movie industry. Only a minute proportion of the spec scripts written ever hit the screen. and if they do, that script will only be the inspiration for something else built by a vast army of talented artists and technicians. The original writer may be credited but in most cases that is little more than a professional courtesy.
The money is good, of course, if you get to that point. But you mostly don’t. A spec script is a wonderful way of conjuring up a world of characters and story with the minimum of words (but a huge amount of work).
You’re putting it together as a blueprint for a movie but you need to acknowledge that it isn’t a movie and will not be unless and until it disappears, nearly entirely, into the vast juggernaut of a production.
SFP: Would you ever write a script for Doctor Who’s new series?
Christopher Bidmead: No. For licensing reasons, I’m no longer allowed to watch the BBC.
SFP: And finally, who would be your pick for the 14th Doctor?
Christopher Bidmead: 14th, is it? I’ve lost count. Back in the day I recommended Helen Mirren to replace Tom but she’s probably far too expensive now.
Scifipulse would like to extend our most heartfelt thanks and best wishes to Christopher Bidmead for so graciously taking the time to answer our questions.
Mr. Bidmead’s Twitter: @chbid
Check out our Dominic G. Martin interview here