Derek, when you switch roles in any situation, you encounter things that you didn’t expect – what was the most surprising thing about stepping from script editor to producer?
[Phil laughs heartily at the question]
Phil: The massive ego of the show runner!
Derek: There was nothing that really alarmed me because I’ve spent most of my career working in production, so to be honest, I’ve seen everything that can go wrong, and I’ve seen how you fix the things that go wrong, whether I’ve done it personally or I’ve seen other people do it.
I’ve worked in every kind of production from sitcoms to arthouse cinema, to big budget and low budget movies… so honestly I’ve seen the works. One day I’ll write a fantastic autobiography! But none of the curveballs really threw me – you can be as organised as you like, but there’s always going to be another curveball. There’s going to be something that you don’t expect, purely from the nature of production! With the fantastic line producer, Stef Morris, the two of us just managed to keep it on an even keel.
The thing that I found most exciting about being a producer is the team – the team is absolutely fantastic. They are brilliant. No matter how great you think you are at planning and understanding and coming up with great ideas for the show, your designer and your location manager and your costume designer and your make-up designer and their teams are the joy of the shoot because they are constantly invigorating you with their takes on things. Things you never thought about creatively, they will bring to the table. That to me was perhaps the most exciting aspect of it: I never knew what they would bring to me next – I loved it when the designer walked across the office to me with a huge piece of paper, because I had no idea what fantastic thing he was going to show me next, whether it was new designs for blasters or a fantastic new set build…
Phil: You were very keen on the guns this year, weren’t you!
Derek: Commission your own blasters! Why would you not commission your own blasters? (both laugh) The biggest and most wonderful thing about being a producer is being surrounded by fantastic people, who constantly surprise you, and in the best humour deal with every challenge that gets thrown at them. Together that’s what we did. It made my job easy in a way, when you’re surrounded by such talented people.
The show has now done around 18 different stories – is this one of those shows you can see just carrying on even once the boys are no longer credible as school students or do you think it needs to retain that school element?
Phil: It is a kids’ show, so I need to some extent you do need to retain that element to keep it relevant to the age group that is watching – although at the same time we do know that there’s an awful lot of adults who watch it which is fantastic. You could do a version of the show where Tom grows up and goes to university, and Benny goes to university as well, but that’s not really our show.
Having said that, we already know there are ways of renewing this show, of maintaining what we have now while still keeping it relevant to the kids. That’s what we want to do. It is a great show, and I keep saying this: you’re not just talking about aliens coming from space, you’re talking about two universes… although, as we will reveal later on, we are talking about three universes.
There are all kind of things; there’s no real reason why this show couldn’t be running for ages. The breadth of the canvas that we’ve got, there’s room for so many stories. Which is a great thing and the thing that turned everybody on when we first came up with the idea.
Phil: Quite definitely yes.
Derek: Definitely yes.
Phil: In actual fact, I have to say without naming names, that Russell and I were approached by somebody who wanted to buy the film rights even before we begun the series. There would be a potential at some point in the future.
You have new cast members… a new sorceress…
Derek: The lovely Alex Childs playing Lady Lyzera.
How did she join the show?
Derek: It was a standard audition process. We were of course looking for a new Varg as well, so I initially met with our fantastic casting director, Andy Brierley, and we did a long list. From that long list, we got our short list and put it in front of Nikki Wilson, our BBC exec, as well as Phil, and from that short list we immediately agreed on a Varg. There was no question that Kristian Phillips was our Varg – he nailed it completely. But with Lady Lyzera being such a new and interesting character…
Phil: …with so many different directions…
Derek: We saw three fantastic performers who we couldn’t decide between initially, and that was because they all brought something very different to the part. So we then got them back to audition with Kristian, our new Varg, and from that we based our choice on their relationship and their chemistry.
Alex was just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. She completely makes the show her own – her performance is scene-stealing and she’s a really perfect opponent for Tom Clarke in Lady Lyzera. She brings an absolute beautiful complexity to that character, dealing behind her husband’s back, manipulative. She’s our Lady Macbeth in many ways.
This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but she feels like a very adult character in the show… It’s not putting a Torchwood character in The Sarah Jane Adventures, but certainly a Doctor Who character in there… [Phil laughs] She’s very grey not black and white.
Phil: The thing is, we’ve made a lot of these shows for kids – Wizards and before that, Sarah Jane, and we know what makes the shows what they are is that we tell sophisticated stories with sophisticated characters.
Writing this kind of show for kids is the most difficult process of writing because you have to walk a very fine line. You have to tell stories which are easy for kids at the younger end of the spectrum to get, but also that don’t talk down to them and are still acceptable to slightly older kids, and indeed the adults. We know this from when we did The Sarah Jane Adventures and we’re experiencing it with this.
So we have these complex characters, these characters that can help us tell some challenging stories in some ways because they’re real. That’s what makes it! So sometimes there’s a hyper-reality there that goes with the territory, but the key to all good science fiction, to all good fantasy, is to, as much as possible, ground your characters and make them real. That’s why the Lady Lyzera, who in many ways is a universe from reality, nevertheless has traces that we can all recognise, and that kids can recognise in adults that they see around them, and in other kids that they know. You just make them real.
So what can we expect from the rest of the year?
Phil: This series we’ve got a lot of laughs in it, a lot of scares and we’ve also got a few tears to be shed over it. There are a few shocks coming up, let’s put it that way.
Derek: We’re very lucky to have a third season, on a show that has matured so much. We’ve been able to push the format and push the characters, and find stories to tell that will put them through the wringer. Big storytelling is what it all comes down to, which means you can increase the scale of your drama. That’s what we’re trying to do!
Thanks to Karen Williams for her help in organising this interview
Wizards vs Aliens series 3 continues on CBBC Mondays & Tuesdays at 5 pm