09 February 2015

Interview: Philip Lawrence

Philip Lawrence is a writer and actor who's probably familiar to readers of this website primarily for scripting the Doctor Who stories Question Marks and Little Doctors as well as running the ever-popular Action Figure Theatre. His acting career has spanned genres and media, with TV roles in Threesome and ITV Real Crime Dramas. On stage, he's recently starred in Privates on ParadeNot the Droids You're Looking For (which he also wrote) and served as an understudy for the whole Horrible Histories cast over two national tours.

AR: Welcome. Who are you and why are you interrupting my Monday evening?

PL: Hello, my name is Philip Lawrence, I'm a writer, and I thought this was my Monday evening. If you really want ownership I could let you have it - but don't change the name.

Oh, go on then. Ah, Philip Lawrence, I remember now! I suppose you want to talk about Doctor Who then?

I'll talk about anything.

That's lucky! Let's start with the basics. The last time I spoke to you - in an official capacity - for Doctor Who Online at the end of 2011, you cited The Robots of Death as your favourite story. Is that still the case?

Certainly nothing New Who has topped it, but I'd have to say The Web of Fear has certainly not disappointed.

And if pressed, could you pick a favourite Doctor and companion?

Ouch, those thumb screws are a bit tight! I think I'd have to say Colin and Nicola. I think it's a nostalgia thing more than anything else. They were my team when I got into Doctor Who for the last time (that last time has never stopped of course!)

I wouldn't say they had the best stories and their chemistry could have been handled a bit better but I do certainly get a thrill out of seeing the figures on my shelf.

I get the same thing with Chris and Billie (and to an extent Barrowman). I think the love of the team you grew up with is hard-wired into all of us at some level, isn't it?

Well my first were Tom and Louise, but I don't have the same affection for them, weirdly. I adore Hartnell too of course and if I had to pick a single companion to go with him it'd be Sara.

Now, your first Short Trip Little Doctors was released the other day, and a fine story it is too. Can you let us into a little of the development process?

First off, thanks for the great review.

I was emailed by Michael Stevens, the script editor on the new Short Trips series, and asked for some pitches. He'd been given my name by David Richardson and he seemed aware of the AFT stuff I'd done too.

I sent him a handful of ideas and Little Doctors was one that stuck for him and he asked for a synopsis, which I duly delivered.

After he read it, he asked for a few tweaks. I think the original idea was to have the little Doctors generated from some kind of rock but apparently this had already been done in Stephen Baxter's The Wheel of Ice, so he suggested the idea of a supercomputer.

It was also originally set on Earth so for the next draft, I took it far out to the colony, called it Olympos and named the computer Zeus. With hindsight, I could have played more with the Greek analogies.

It just goes to show how hard it is to come up with new ideas for Doctor Who.

I liked the insular nature of the colony, and having a mad supercomputer suppressing the population it was created to aid is a very typical but surprisingly unexplored Doctor Who story. In fact, it's surprising that the Troughton era didn't really have an antagonist of that nature.

True. It would have been easy to produce such a villain. All you need is a voice. I guess The Mind Robber comes close.

Yes, that's probably the closest. Were there any other major changes across the writing of this?

I had been told originally that it would be read by Wendy Padbury. That's why it's more of a Zoe story. Jamie is very much sidelined. If I'd known it would be read by Frazer, I'd have addressed that or written a Jamie-centric episode.

As it happens a lot of the Zoe character stuff was watered down between drafts. In my head, as well as trying to be a comedy (Doctor Who does Gremlins) I wanted to show some progression in Zoe as she's forced to overcome her own reliance on logic to 'teach' Zeus. I'm not sure how much of that comes across in the final piece.

Yes, I liked the conscious references from Zoe speaking out against thinking totally logically. It's a trait that suddenly changes in her across Series 6, so it's nice to have that gap plugged, thanks!

It's there also in the fact that her heart skips a beat when she thinks of the TARDIS but she doesn't realise why until the end of the story. She learns along with Zeus.

Yes, these were all things I thought were very clever, and suited her down to the ground. It must have been thrilling to get the email inviting you to pitch?

Yeah absolutely. It's always lovely to get work (obviously) but it's also a bit nerve-wracking pitching ideas and trying to come up with something that's exciting, new and imaginative but that still fits Doctor Who. Fortunately the replies are always constructive even if some pitches are unsuccessful.

Well that’s certainly encouraging for those considering trying their hand. It might be surprising to some that it took this long for you to return to the official worlds of Doctor Who, after the very well-received Question Marks. I hope the gap to your next venture won't be so big?

I do have another one out this year and one more for (I think) 2016 so I'm not going anywhere just yet.

That's great news. But your writing career do of course span far beyond the realms of Big Finish. Aside from the recent Not The Droids You're Looking For, what else have you been working on?

Nothing that's really out there yet. I have done several plays and some other bits and pieces for radio and theatre but most of my stuff at the moment are spec scripts, trying to build up a body of work to take to agents, producers and script editors.

I'm very lucky that everything I've written so far has been performed in one way or another but it means I don't have anything in the drawer when people ask.

I'm sure that's more desirable than the reverse situation! I've found your ambition to write a substantial amount every day quite inspiring. How tightly have you stuck to it?

With varying degrees of success. Things often get in the way. I do write something every day, and I still always have a notebook on me.

I've just finished the first draft of a screenplay by doing just 25 minutes every day. I think I started it on January 11th. It's a good discipline to try and stick to. It does reap rewards, especially when you're busy.

And I've got lots of other things I want to write this year.

Well let's hope the Philip Lawrence masterpiece isn't too far away then. If you had to choose from writing, directing or acting, which would you do for the rest of your life?

I don't consider myself a director by any means. I've done what some may consider directing, but it's not something I'd actively pursue or consider myself remotely good at.

However I am a bit of a control freak so I'd say writing. Acting is amazing but as versatile as (I think) I am, there are only so many characters I can portray. Writing allows me to be anyone and anything. I think also, though it's just as overcrowded a profession as acting, I think there are more opportunities to be creative and get work.

Absolutely. So would you have any tips for budding writers looking to get their first commission?

Learn to do it. Read books about it, do courses, read blogs. But also learn by DOING IT! Don't wait for the right moment, just get on and learn while doing it.

And be diverse. Don't pour your heart and soul into one life's work. Write loads of things until you find your voice and realise what it is you specifically need to say.

Let other people read your stuff and take feedback and criticism. If you can't take feedback, and act on it you have no chance.

Rewrite. Nothing comes first time. Every line, every word needs to be examined. Is it exactly right?

And finally: plan. Do a synopsis first, work out your story before you write it. And even then, you don't have to sit down and right it out from first line to last. Dip in and out. Start with chapter 10. Skip sections that you're struggling on and come back to them later.

You should be a teacher!

Erm, yes I'm quite passionate about this writing lark. I guess above all, just DO IT. Don't wait for permission.

Excellent, thanks! And it'd be remiss of me to go a whole interview without mentioning the AFT. Are there any plans to relieve its current hiatus?

There is one more story that hasn't been posted and I will get round to it one day. It just isn't a finale, it never was. It ends on a flippin' cliffhanger!

If I'd had time to decide, ‘OK, I'm not doing it any more’, I'd have written a proper send off, wrapping up the story strands that I'd left dangling. Every so often I do try and think of a one-shot story I could do to cap it all off.

At the risk of rubbing salt into any wounds, there are some stories that I'd written that I never got round to making like a second McGann series and a War Doctor trilogy. I am considering a short story if the FB group gets 500 likes (we're about 6 away I think) [link] but it's all a question of priorities and timing.

I guess the short answer is 'no, not at the moment'. But you know me, I never like to say never.

Fair enough. I think when it comes down to it, we'd all rather you got something on screen or stage than an action figure comic. One final question: if you had a one-way trip in the TARDIS anywhere, where would you go?

Oooh good question! I think last time I was asked this I said back to the '70s to save the missing Doctor Who episodes. Since it's a one-way trip I guess I'd head to a simpler time. I always have had a fondness for Roman times. I'd stock up on modern medicines before heading off though!

Plug plug plug...

Plug! I guess it'd be my most recent project, for Lost Theatre's 5 Minute Festival. Not The Droids You're Looking For is a five minute play about life, friendship and science fiction. It was a great piece to work on, both as actor and writer. I'm very proud of it and lots of people have told me they relate to it. Which is nice. [watch it below]

Phil, thank you very much for your time, as always.

You can visit Philip's official website here, his Casting Call Pro profile here, or the Action Figure Theatre here.

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