Ten Years of Nest Cottage
Time is relative, I know. But really – ten years ago? Already?
It was spring, just like this, turning warmer than it had any right to be. It was 2009 and it was the year I would turn forty, and I was living out a lifetime’s ambition.
I had spent all the weeks since the very beginning of January – all the long, dark days of an endlessly cold winter – writing a long Doctor Who story in five parts.
Tom Baker was still the missing Doctor. No one could convince him to come back and recreate the role. He hadn’t really been near it for twenty-eight years. He was fearsomely protective of his legacy, and legendarily impossible for writers to please.
But that winter and spring I was secretly writing this strange adventure that he had partially suggested himself, in a lunch meeting with my editor and producer. What if… he wondered expansively… what if his Doctor Who hadn’t regenerated after all? What if he had quietly retired to a village somewhere deep in the English countryside, rather like Sherlock Holmes had? What if he had a dog and a tetchy housekeeper? What if he had a companion come to visit him during the long winter nights? Someone for him to share spooky stories with..?
What if that was the way he could return to Doctor Who? As a storyteller sitting comfortably by the fire..? Unwinding macabre tales of terror like infinite strings of multi-coloured wool…?
That sounded like just the sort of thing I’d love to write, and so that is more or less what I wrote.
Early May I was sitting on the grass in Regent’s Park with my laptop and my editor. It was a blindingly beautiful day in the sun. The flowers were riotously colourful and the ducks were pretty noisy. We were going through the five hour-long scripts I’d written and finessing the final draft. There had been much rewriting during the first third of the year on this fiendishly complex story. The story itself featured stories-with-stories and time going backwards and people being possessed and shrunk and sent back and forth through time. There were many locations and a horde of eccentric characters: clowns and nuns, hornet queens and ballet dancers, dwarfs and hounds from hell. I’d really gone to town on conjuring up a bit of flourish and extravagance.
Tom Baker’s era of Doctor Who always seemed to me to involve raffish eccentrics encountering Gothic monstrosities. There were lady painters, maniac surgeons, fey horticulturalists and gruff archeologists on hand to do battle with evil houseplants, fusty mummies and killer jellyfish and the like. I wanted that same combination of the homely and the weird in the stories I brought to this season.
I’d seen an email Tom had written to my editor, shortly after reading my scripts. He had been chortling. He had been guffawing. He was delighted by it all.
And I could hardly believe it. I had poured everything I knew into these stories, about how to create atmosphere and how to mess about with the Doctor Who format. I’d over-egged the language and relished every word. I wanted to write him magical stuff he would love to say. Words like crunchy truffles and jewels and popping candy. The date of our first recording sessions were set. We were just about ready to go. The scripts were all done and dusted. That final polish made them perfect, we decided, sitting there in the last of the sun. I had to nip back to my hotel – via Baker Street – and email them to the office to get them printed in time for the next day. Strange feeling – crossing busy Euston Road with my laptop – thinking, I’ve got the only copy of the finished scripts on this machine.
But the pages were safe, and they were printed on time. And the plan was that we convene the next morning in Hampstead, in a fancy recording studio in a garden of a big house in a leafy street.
I had coffee and bacon sandwiches in a nearby caff, still not daring to hope that Doctor Who would actually show up. Surely at any moment he’d decide that it was all a ghastly mistake, and this project really wasn’t for him?
I arrived early – as ever – and met other members of the cast and small crew. It was a lovely, dark little building of square rooms and dark corners. Everyone had masses of pages of script. I sat in the garden with Sue Jameson – our Mrs Wibbsey, the housekeeper from hell. She was familiar to me from loads of telly, very friendly and apple-cheeked. We talked about pets and other animals. In fact, there was a lot of talk of cats and dogs all round.
When Tom arrived he told me that he had walked his dog very early in the woods near his house, going over the story again in his head. He had covered his script in penciled notes and ideas. His script was a great splashy wodge of pages, which he threw to the floor, one at a time, as he was finished with them. Each page had been treated with great attention and care: each word rolled around in those vast, dark tones, and sometimes embellished and messed around with as he stood there at the old-fashioned mike in that sepulchral studio.
He had ushered in with him an atmosphere of booming bonhomie. There was always an edge, however. That freebooting jocularity was tempered with the steely glint in those hyper-alert eyes. And I remembered: this Doctor could turn on a dime, couldn’t he? Beam at you one moment, bellow the next. And Tom was just the same. I stood and watched as the others fussed around him and got him settled. There was no doubt that this was the Doctor and he was here, amongst us. He was actually here at last. A great big polar bear of a man, filling up every room he went into. Like visiting Royalty from space.
I was absolutely terrified that something would go wrong or something would annoy him. I was scared that he was going to vanish in an instant. There’d be a swirl of iridescent anti-matter and he’d be gone in an explosive flash.
Everyone was tense. Waiting to see. Waiting to hear. He barely stopped talking between arriving and barreling through the rooms to get to the mike. He flung off his jacket, threw down his carrier bag of script pages and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. He stared beadily across the microphones at Daniel, his guest star in the scenes that were to be recorded first. These scenes had the Doctor in the villain’s horrid lair – deep within the stinking confines of a factory staffed by stuffed animals.
I somehow ended up in the recording booth for this first read-through, and I could see my editor looking at me rather frantically through the glass in the control booth. He was right – we should lie low and not draw attention to ourselves as those principally responsible for the scripts. If I marked myself out as writer, I might put myself in line for a dressing down if our star decided he’d changed his mind about the quality of what he was being asked to perform.
But I was in the studio anyway – perhaps foolhardily - because I’d bought a bag of jelly babies on my way through Hampstead that morning, and I was determined to offer the Doctor one before he recorded his first lines. It seemed like a necessary ritual.
He broke off from rehearsing and stared at me blankly, eyes bulging. And then he grinned. Briefly, and then went back to the scene and by sheer chance his first line was, ‘I am the Doctor.’ Unguent like dark golden toffee, and menacing as all hell.
And that was that. Off we went. He was back. We had done it. Somehow we had managed to work together as a team and bring him back and everyone – Tom included – was relieved.
That summer we recorded a day or two every other week for several months. It was a slow accretion of layers of scenes and narrated passages, all recorded out of order, all taped in Hampstead or in soundproof eyries in the attic heights of Soho. It was tough, nerve-wracking work at times, other times it was hilarious. And by the end we had a boxed set of five hour long discs: ‘Hornet’s Nest.’ And the next year we had another series of five, and a year later, another five again. Our stories were wintry and festive, so Radio 4Extra broadcast them several years in a row at teatime on the fifteen days of Christmas .
‘The Nest Cottage Chronicles’ – as this era of Doctor Who is now known – is a strange and already-nostalgic part of Who history. I’m proud of it because we proved that it’s perfectly possible to create something quite new and unheard-of within this longest-running of adventure serials. A dash of MR James, a splotch of EF Benson, a soupcon of 1970s Dr Who Annual stories… and a great big voluminous dollop of Gothic Bohemianism. We stirred it all together and prayed really very hard that it would all work out for the best.
But it was nothing until that particular actor came striding into that tiny box of a recording studio on a bright, sunny May morning ten years ago. Guffawing, chortling and being fierce as someone who has walked through eternity to get here.
Those are the multi-coloured strands I’m raveling up in my memory, now that the sun is out this spring Bank Holiday weekend. I’m remembering how we did this crazy, magic thing – a small gang of us – ten years ago and I’m marveling at our long-ago bravado.