The majority of your writing is nearer the grittier side of drama than SF – how did Eve come about?
As Frank Skinner said recently, I’m a bit embarrassed to call myself a Doctor Who fan because there are so many people who can name the third Cyberman on the left in The Tenth Planet! (At least I think that’s what he said; maybe it was the second one on the right in The Moonbase. A proper fan would know!) I was always very into things like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and Doctor Who. And Red Dwarf of course, I’m sure viewers of Eve will spot a few references! But when it came to work, I’d take it where I could find it. I got a job writing The Story of Tracy Beaker, and that led to other jobs in Children’s BBC.
Interestingly, because Children’s is sort of a thing on its own – it’s considered a genre in itself, although it’s lots of things – I wrote on all sorts of programmes: there was a show called Spirit Warriors which was based on Chinese mythology and a fantasy world, and Young Dracula. Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat both came out of Children’s TV – Russell had his own six part thriller type shows [Century Falls/Dark Shadows] – but they only make a small amount of shows these days, and getting a new show off the ground is very difficult.
I proposed a few things over the years; a couple of them had a sci-fi bent. You put in proposals; sometimes they’d get quite far and you’d get a couple of meetings and everyone seems really keen… and then it’s, “really sorry, we’ve got something similar coming from Scotland”! I’d been working with David Chikwe on a proposal about a teen girl detective which went into CBBC but didn’t go anywhere. He said that he had an idea about a girl who’s a robot. We thought that chimed with things we were both interested in, so we decided to work on that and submitted a pitch.
He first contacted me about it in January 2010, and we got the pitch in at the end of that year. It’s been gradually making its way through the BBC systems ever since.
So five years from the idea to it being on TV…
I think that’s a reasonably short timeframe in TV!
Unless it’s something like The Sarah Jane Adventures coming out of Doctor Who – which was unusual to have a show with a leading lady of her vintage…
I’ve been around CBBC for a while, and at the time they were commissioning Sarah Jane, they were saying very firmly that what they were looking for had to be child-centred, they didn’t want anything with an adult in the lead, or anything sci-fi…
We have a lot to thank The Sarah Jane Adventures for. I think it’s probably opened up doors and made it easier for Eve, with one of our major characters being Mary, a woman in her sixties. I remember being in a meeting, so aware of ageism and sexism, and someone going, “How old is Mary?” and I was thinking, “Oh dear, I’m going to have to say that one of our major characters is a woman in her sixties” so I just said, “She’s in her sixties, like Elisabeth Sladen.” You could just see the approving nods around the table – “that’s marvellous”. The Sarah Jane Adventures really changed the game at CBBC and opened up a lot of possibilities and a lot of that’s down to the brilliance of Elisabeth Sladen. I’m just so sad I never got to meet her.
One review compared Eve to the Children’s Film Foundation films and I thought, “I’m not quite sure how you intended that, but I’m going to take it as a compliment”. I like the slightly old-fashioned creep factor so I hope people will remember the show in thirty years’ time.
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the humour of the football match and the tension of Lily in the cellar in episode 3 – and that it almost makes you forget that Eve isn’t a comic character… Are the two strands of the perils at work and the humour at home going to meld more?
I think they do. Episode 4 resolves some plot strands, and then in future episodes there are some game changers. As the series goes on, it becomes one story building up towards the series finale.
It’s interesting because over the five years, we went in various directions, depending on who was in charge at the time, or what the BBC were looking for. Which changes all the time of course, and if you’re in development, you need to change too if you hope to get on air. At one point – possibly the first draft of the first pilot script, which was a version of what would become episode 2 – it was quite sitcom-y. We were very much encouraged at one point not to tell it as a serial story but to make each episode stand alone – not to really do an origin story going into Eve’s creation, telling the story we told in episode 1. I was very happy when we were able to take it more in the direction which you eventually saw.
The flashback structure of ep 1 was a sudden inspiration I had around about Christmas 2013 – it seems a no-brainer now but I had to work to convince the team! Cheryl Taylor, in charge of CBBC, was about big ideas and big jeopardy and I thought that was exactly what it should be. But I have to say that Sue Nott, who executive produced the show on behalf of CBBC, has always been a wonderful supporter of the show – she was there throughout the years, helping us find our way.
You’re always finding your feet with a show, finding what works, finding exactly what the genre is going to be. With the first series, you’re trying things and seeing what you can do, and what you can get away with on CBBC. I’ve been working for them for 10 years and they’ll come down very strongly on certain things. There are a lot of things you can’t do – until somebody does them, and they become ok! Wizards vs. Aliens have done a couple of things – they’ve had somebody coming out, and somebody clearly having sex (obviously off-camera, but that child had to come from somewhere). With more fantasy-based shows like Wizards or Young Dracula, you can get away with a lot more than in a more realistic show like The Dumping Ground. Children love to be scared up to a point but we don’t want to traumatise them! The historical way people always got round that in Children’s was going for “creep”. We don’t have a crazy mad knife-wielding person, because children might be afraid that that would happen to them in real life, but we can creep people out with a sentient robot doing something a bit unexpected and make the kids wonder what’s going with her, because they’re not likely to encounter that situation in real life.
On a practical level, that scene was written to be in the bathroom, then Will’s bedroom, but then because we didn’t have a bathroom or Will’s bedroom, it was played in the corridor bit on the set. Will’s wrapped in a towel and is quite vulnerable (in a comic way) as Eve refuses to leave him alone to get dressed. There was a concern that CBBC might have a problem with this scene, but they never did.
The script was very cautious and careful, but the way Oliver and Poppy played it, and Adrian McDowall directed it, was brilliant and hilarious. I was hysterical when I was watching the rushes.
And the focus is on the faces, rather than… anywhere lower!
The way they play it is great.
There’s always a danger that he could become a Scrappy Doo. More optimistically, he’s an Ewok or a K9, something for the younger viewers to enjoy but which may grate on the older ones. That’s the aim, anyway! (Showing my age, I loved K9, and – well, tolerated the Ewoks). But I know it can all go wrong – nobody ever intends to create a Scrappy… If he is annoying, it’s entirely my fault, not Elijah’s – he plays him brilliantly. Abe can be selfish and bratty, but he embraces the robo-girl idea enthusiastically, and as you’ll see in later episodes, he’s completely loyal to Eve, even if he does make some terrible choices. I think (well, hope!) you forgive him as he’s so loyal to our heroine.
As for not getting his well-deserved comeuppance, all Abe plots and scenes tended to suffer horribly as a result of scheduling problems: eps 1 and 2 were particularly problematic. In ep 2 there was a whole scripted sequence when he hid his ill-gotten trainers in a park, lost them when they got chewed by a dog, chased after the car with the rest of his stuff as it was towed away, etc. So at least you did see Abe getting a bit of just desserts! In the later episodes he doesn’t get away with so much, partly because we’d learned to be more realistic about what we could script and what we could schedule.
How much has the show changed from your original pitch?
Probably quite a lot – we’ve gone through various different stages. There was the original pitch from my co-creator David Chikwe, which started the whole thing off. Then we re-worked the pitch together. At one point they were going to be on the run and in different places each week – but that just wasn’t going to be feasible budget-wise. It went on a journey in some ways, and then came back. We went through so many different versions, but I’m fairly happy with where it ended up tonally, although it was quite a journey to get there.
But it’s strange. For five years, this entire world and these characters existed only in the minds of David, me, and development producer Jez Swimer. Now it’s out there on TV and everyone has some ownership of it. It’s an adjustment. And, speaking for myself, I’m still looking at the show and learning about what it is, what works and what doesn’t.
What were your main production challenges?
We had very severe restrictions. A couple of producers looked at the scripts and budgets and went, “That can’t be done”. But Peter Gallagher made it happen – it’s an absolute miracle that it happened at all. And Moley Campbell, the designer, worked wonders with the sets.
When people know that the budget is low, they ask if the set will wobble, or if the effects will not look good. No, the set won’t wobble, the effects will look okay (in fact, I was delighted with the effects) but a lot of people don’t realise the restrictions that a smaller budget places on storytelling – what locations you can use changes the shape of the story. If you’re trying to tell 80-90% of the story on a couple of sets, you have to be quite careful how you structure your story – or in fact, re-structure the story after we realised how restricted we were going to be. The ambition of the show in some areas made us feel the restrictions even more strongly than in other CBBC shows that I’ve done. We did have to do quite a lot of rewrites, and drop some ideas.
Peter was very tough on budget, and said we couldn’t do a lot of things – then having ruthlessly cut down the scripts to fit in the budget, sometimes he’d say they’d found a location they could use. In episode 4, there’s a climactic scene which was going to take place around a power point in a hospital corridor, but in the end, after we’d written the super-cheap version, they said they’d found a generator room, which looks quite cool. So sometimes we’d have a pleasant surprise! With the football match in episode 3, it was difficult. We were constantly cutting down on the scenes at the football ground and had to work out how we could tell the story.
The first block in many ways was tougher because the scripts were written during an earlier stage of development, where we weren’t quite sure how tough the restrictions would be. We had a lot of last minute rewrites, and phone calls from the set asking for cuts; later on, we realised what was possible and what we were dealing with, and the scripts would start off in a more realistic shape. We did five episodes in the first block (1-3, 5 and 6) and then four and four. By the time you’re writing block 3, you’re very aware of what the production constraints are, and write more to what works. It certainly gets easier to write at that point!
Has there been anything that has come out from the actors’ performances that affected the later scripts? Poppy has a great innocence…
I think I had Poppy in my head for a while. I wrote on a show a few years ago called Dead Gorgeous, a British-Australian co-production about some Victorian British ghosts who were at a modern boarding school in Australia. Poppy played one of those ghosts, called Sophie, and I remembered she had this otherness about her, but she can then snap into being quite normal and quite human. What’s wonderful about her is she can turn on a dime: that sort of mercurial quality is very key. We’d write moments where she can do that: she laughs and then returns her face to a very neutral state, which is quite chilling.
She’s a wonderful and very inventive actress and does great things with the lines – so you’re writing for what you suspect she might do. She’s a very talented and a very skilled actress: she’s been doing this for a long time. She told me she was the youngest ever Cosette in Les Mis when she was six! OIiver of course was in Utopia, so he’s also a seasoned performer, despite his age.
Ben Cartwright as Will’s dad Nick has to appear in both strands of the story, and in many ways is holding the show together: he brings seriousness to the comic moments.
The ideal is to play the whole thing for real. Obviously it’s quite clear that the show we were aiming to do is very much in the Doctor Who tradition: taking potentially silly things very seriously, and playing them very straight, but also finding moments of lightness in moments of serious jeopardy as well.
We wanted to get that fish out of water humour with Eve. There is a lot of humour to be had with somebody who doesn’t understand many of the conventions by which we live our lives. However, there is a more serious side to the story as well, and in a children’s show, the children need to be empowered and driving it, so you can’t have the dad coming in and solving all the problems. But Nick’s not an idiot dad – he’s someone who’s very brilliant in his fields, but the sort of problems that he’s up against are outside his experience, as they would be outside any adult’s, so he looks to his son to help for solutions because he has to look to somebody!
We think of all the characters as equal: the adults are certainly no less important than the children. We see less of Maddie and Viv because we don’t have the downstairs part of the Watsons’ house – that was a location, and they’re limited. The only set we have for the Watsons is Lily’s bedroom. It was always part of the set-up of the show – Maddie takes a motherly interest in Will so they’re always popping in and out of each other’s houses… which is lucky!
Is there scope for a sequel?
There are strands that will be ongoing, and we’ve obviously got plans and ideas for going several series ahead! That will depend on getting commissioned. At the moment we’re doing a pitch document for series 2…
Thanks to Karen Williams and Matthew Robinson for their help in arranging this interview.
Eve continues at 5.30 pm on CBBC each Monday.