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What It’s Like to Write British TV Like ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’

What It's Like to Write British TV Like 'Doctor Who' and 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'

Americans have a perception of British television being of a different caliber, but what makes it different, at least from a writing perspective? According to Peter Harness, whose recent credits include the “Doctor Who” episode “Kill the Moon” as well as the miniseries adaptation of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” it comes down to community. 

READ MORE: Why Its UK Influence Has Allowed BBC America to Be Ahead of the Curve as a ‘Very Auteur-Oriented Channel’

At the TCA Winter Press Tour this January, Harness told Indiewire about the development process that goes into adapting an epic-length novel, how he finagled his way into writing for “Doctor Who” and why he thinks British television could learn something from the American process. 

The book was of course a huge deal when it came out. When did you first become aware of it?

I can’t remember.  I mean, I’d heard of it when it came out, but I don’t think I read it until a few years ago.

Is that when you were approached?

No. Just before.

Okay. So, how did that work out then?

Well, Susanna Clarke is with my agency in the U.K. and they’ve just started producing things themselves – they have a production company.

The agency?

Mmhm. And so, they were putting that together and they asked me whether I’d like to adapt it. And I said “yes, please.”

So I own a copy of the book, I know how big it is.

It’s very big. How big is yours? Mine is a thousand pages.

Yeah, mine is the hardback edition. It’s next to the unabridged Shakespeare, because that’s the only bookcase it can fit inside. When you take on a tome like that, do you start with what to cut, or do you start with what to keep?

I think, what I did when I was chopping, I just kind of chomped it into bits, I didn’t really want to cut any of it. And we’ve tried pretty hard not to cut any of it. Which has meant that it’s a very kind, compact narrative, and it moves very quickly. Once it starts and once everybody’s introduced, it goes along quite quickly and it gets quicker and quicker and quicker. So, what I did, I think with, just to kind of identify chunks in the book, which would be a good end point – a good beginning point and a good end point for an episode, and sometimes moving things back and forth.

Was the number of episodes, then, something you were able to determine going into it?

I thought it would be six to begin with, but then I started writing it and not long after that I thought I can’t, no it’s got to have seven. But I thought seven was the ideal number. It would slot perfectly into seven.

I’m sure you’re aware, in the U.S. being able to go to a studios to say “Look, I actually need seven episodes to tell my story, not six” is almost unthinkable.

I think it is in the U.K. as well.

Really?

I was very, very surprised that they said yes.

How did you talk them into it?

I just, I don’t know, I just said “I think we need an extra episode.” I think when we’d talked to them when they greenlit it, they’d asked whether we wanted six or eight and I said six. So we compromised on seven.

It sounds like, then, that maybe they had the budget for eight.

Yeah, maybe.

But how does that work? Do you get involved with the budgetary elements of that?

No [laughs]. It’s somebody else’s headache for me to provide them with.


And it’s interesting because, what I’m really interested in is the kind of, what the working life of a working British writer is like right now. Because you’ve had this experience, how long would you say it took to write “Jonathan Strange”?

It’s quite hard to say because I started doing it about three years ago, and I guess it took me, it probably took me about a year, just under a year to get through all of the scripts, roughly. But then, we worked on it a lot together and Toby the director and Nick the producer and I worked very closely together to make sure that we could realize it and make sure that we had a common goal for it. So, it was a quite organic process that went on throughout filming and until as we are now, kind of at the end, effects and post-production and things like that. I guess it’s just been a big chunk of work for all of us, for a few years. But, the actual sitting down and writing probably took about 18 months.

So it’s been a huge part of your life for the last years, for the last three years, but in the meantime you are taking on other projects. You recently wrote an episode of “Doctor Who.” How does that fit into your schedule?

[Laughs] Very chaotically. I think I finished my real serious writing on “Jonathan Strange” last January, about a year ago. And then I was fairly late with writing my episode of “Doctor Who,” so I had to write that quite quickly.

So how does that gig come to you? That opportunity?

“Doctor Who?”

Yes.

I’ve always been a big fan of “Doctor Who,” so I kind of made a lot of noises to various people about how much I like “Doctor Who” and eventually they asked me to go and kind of pitch some ideas to them. And I did that, quite a long while ago, actually, for Matt Smith’s last series as the Doctor. And I pitched them the idea which became the episode that I wrote. 

That’s interesting that you pitched it for Matt Smith’s Doctor because [“Kill the Moon”]’s a very Capaldi-esque Doctor episode by the end of it.

Yes, and I’m glad that it didn’t go to Matt Smith’s Doctor. I think it works a lot better for Peter’s Doctor than it would have done for Matt’s.

Coming into the writing of it, how different was the original idea from the actual episode?

Well, I mean the key idea wasn’t very different, but the kind of dynamic with him and Clara was— I’d been looking for a more emotional way into it, when I was doing it for Matt Smith’s Doctor, and the kind of dynamic between Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara kind of provided that. So, it slotted into it nicely, really.


So this is a development process, of course, so does this mean you’re developing on your own, in your writer’s office wherever that might be?

Well, I live in Sweden, so I’m kind of back and forth to the U.K. So I probably don’t have as many meetings about it as I would do as I would in the U.K. but I mean, we, you go and see them fairly often and you get notes back and things like that. So you’re not really developing it in a void.

I’m interested in how the community of British writers works. I imagine people are friends, people know each other, and then you get to know the people to talk to in order to get an opportunity to pitch “Doctor Who.” 

I don’t know because there isn’t really such thing as a writer’s room in the U.K., which, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I think it would be good to start doing that, and I guess it more depends on who you are. It more depends on your personality, because if you’re fairly gregarious you do know a lot of writers, and you do chat about things. A lot of writers aren’t especially gregarious [laughs] and they tend to do it on their own. 

But, as far as “Doctor Who” goes I think most of the “Doctor Who” writers are “Doctor Who” fans and may be kind of, tend to connect with each other in that kind of capacity anyway. I think you end up knowing each other because of that.

How would you classify yourself as a writer — the gregarious kind or the not so?

Yes, I think I’m fairly gregarious, apart from my living in a foreign country, so I’m gregarious in concentrated bursts.

Why do you live in Sweden?

Because I’m married to a Swede.

That’ll do it.

We kind of settled there by accident.

Does that affect your perspective on, I guess the industry then? Because you’re kind of outside it?

Yes, I think I’m slightly less stressed by it, because I know nobody can come and knock on my door at 5pm on a Friday afternoon and ask where the hell a script is. I think it makes me a bit more relaxed.

I imagine that helps take the pressure off, when you actually sit down to write though.

It does, but I’m still quite nervous and wound-up. I mean, I’d probably be worse if I was in the U.K. but it is good having a bit of distance from things, to be honest.

That said though, you mentioned that maybe writer’s rooms could be something that British television could consider. Why do you say that?

Because I think, well when we look at how things are done in America, we see that it looks as though it produces good results. And when you do it in the U.K. if you want to – you tend to have authored series which are written by one writer or one kind of creative team, which is a different way of doing it but quite a demanding way of doing it. And I just think it’s worth a try. I think it clearly provokes so much good TV over here, that I really think it would be a good way to do things.

It’s funny, though, because I feel like we, of course have the opposite perspective like, “Oh, the British people, they just write with one person, one person writes the whole show and it’s great.”

Yeah, but you don’t get to see the rubbish, some of the rubbish that we get and we probably don’t get to see some of the rubbish that you do. So I think we’ve probably got false perspectives.


So, what do you have coming up next, aside from “Jonathan Strange?”

I’ve managed to fit in writing the final series of the “Wallander” series, which we’re nearly finished shooting. And then I’m doing, I’m developing my own series, for a change. But, I’ve haven’t really started those yet.

For your own stuff, do you feel like you’re going to take it more genre or go more mystery-drama?

I think I’d like to do genre, really. I mean, I like this kind of thing. I think, left to my own devices, I’d write something more along the lines of “Jonathan Strange” than a detective series or something like that. I like bits of fantasy and bits of supernatural and bits of magic and things and I guess that’s what I’m doing.

And it’s such a British product. When you were approaching it, did you make it your primary goal to make it really specific to the original story and keep that British element to it, or were you looking also at the potential for making it broader?

I don’t think I thought about it like that. I think that we try and make something which is as accessible as possible as a piece of drama, because I think with fantasy shows and sometimes period dramas and historical shows, there’s a slight danger that you lose the human story. I think, if you’ve got a human character to that story, that is very relatable and that is the thing which kind of carries you through, if it’s a character which carries you through I think you can do anything in any world, in any environment, and people will still go for it because it’s about things that anyone can understand. So telling a good story was the important thing.

It’s interesting how it takes a while to get to the real magic of the story, and I actually really like the way the first episode ends. I think it’s a great hook for future episodes, even knowing what’s going to happen. How important do cliffhangers become for you in that sense?

The cliffhangers are important. They’re not always cliffhangers where you think, “How the hell is anyone going to get out of this one?” I think we leave at a point where you think, “Oh, god, the story – I have no idea where it’s going to go now.” There’s been another step up and we – I think, after that kind of first thing at the end of the first episode, where the Gentleman is summoned. That’s really when the box is opened, and then I think just everything starts. There’s a kind of domino effect on the whole story and all of the characters and it really follows a very kind of clear and direct line from there, getting faster and faster until the end of Episode 7, and we really try to make it all one story and everything consequential, in a very kind of multi-character and complex way. I hope it all feels like one long story rather than a series of distinct episodes. 

That’s the way people are watching this anyway these days.

Yeah, I hope so. Yes, it’ll be a good binge watch, I think.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” premieres tonight on BBC America.” 

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