On the set of The Rebel Flesh


In December 2010, three intrepid reporters braved the ice and snow to visit the set of The Rebel Flesh. This record of their experiences reveals the challenges of shooting Doctor Who in an inhospitable location...

[Published in Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #44 - Doctor Who on Location (Panini UK Ltd, July 2016), pp. 86-9. Posted here with the kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]

What's it like to visit location filming on Doctor Who? In 2010, I was working for children's magazine Doctor Who Adventures, and was invited to join Nick Setchfield from SFX magazine and Kevin Harley from Total Film for an afternoon at Neath Abbey. It was Friday, 10 December, and production was under way on The Rebel Flesh.

The plan was to speak to the cast and crew, including stars Matt Smith (who played the Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond) and Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), around their shooting commitments. These interviews could then be published when the new series aired in April 2011. I'd read the script of the episode and had a call sheet for the day, detailing the cast, crew and the recording schedule. And Elena Kemp from Premier PR, was there to ensure that the cast – and I – didn't reveal any spoilers.

Kevin and I left London Paddington on the 8.45 train, arriving in Neath just before midday. By the time we'd met up with Nick and Elena, and reached the set, it was close to one o'clock. We were quickly ushered into Matt Smith's trailer for a 15-minute chat, preserved on tape.

“It’s so cold, I can't tell you,” Matt begins. “It means two layers of thermals. Castles sort of retain the cold. We were at Caerphilly Castle last week, and when the team got there early in the morning it was minus 15. We were on set for eight and it was minus six. And then if the wind chill is up...”

“So,” says Nick Setchfield, “this is quite a contrast to Utah” – where Matt had been filming for The Impossible Astronaut in November.

“Yes,” says Matt, “although Utah gets really cold as well, because it's the desert. As soon as the sun goes down in Utah, it's perishing. So I found myself in thermals during the day, when it was 52 degrees or whatever, and then by night-time it was just absolutely freezing. But there’s no way of preparing for it. The last thing you want to do is take off your microphone and all of your costume at lunch, put on a set of thermals, then everything else back on – because that's half an hour gone. So you just had to be hot.”

But the discomfort was worth it; as Kevin says, the pictures released from the location shoot look really special. “Yes,” agrees Matt eagerly. “I think it’s going to elevate the show because the locations are epic and vast. They make it feel like a feature film. There is no substitute with green screen for getting Monument Valley.”

I ask about monsters – a favourite topic of readers of Doctor Who Adventures – and Matt is careful not to reveal too much. He admits he doesn't know what's coming next in the season, and says, “I'd quite like to write a script one day. I'm learning a lot from Steven [Moffat] but you've got to be really good to write Doctor Who. But I've never really shown anyone anything I've written. And the truth is, when I have to go home in the evening from here, I don’t have an hour to sit down and think up another story. I’ve got to get my head in these stories and learn these words. That takes up the majority of my time.”

Despite the workload, he's enthusiastic about the job – and being the Doctor. “I was talking to Karen about it. It’s wonderful: there’s just no other part in the world where you get to walk into the room like you’re a piece of velvet. With anyone else, you'd go, 'Why is James Bond walking like he’s nuts?' But with the Doctor, anything goes. It’s such a privilege to play him, particularly physically. And there's such comic potential.”

We're quickly out of time, but Matt is all smiles, responding to Nick's last question about whether there'll be a new hat for the Doctor, wishing us happy Christmas and checking we've been invited to the press screening of the Christmas special. We clamber out of the trailer, leaving the Doctor's warm welcome for the freezing cold.

Elena then takes us for a look round Neath Abbey's thirteenth-century undercroft, which now houses an open sarcophagus – in the script called a 'flesh bowl'. We step carefully round the lights and cables set up for the shoot, taking notes but, as instructed, not allowed to take photographs. Then, as the crew resume recording, we're led outside to a tent where we find a gas heater and some fold-up chairs. There we wait to catch the rest of the cast and crew in their free moments.

First, Sarah Smart and Marshall Lancaster tell us a little about their characters – Jennifer and Buzzer. Sarah admits she's “not really been to Wales before, and these castles aren't really built for comfort, are they?” But Marshall counters that the locations will lend “quite a gothic thing” to what's a “dark and scary episode”. He's keen to praise Matt Smith – but can't tell us about the scenes that have really impressed him (where Matt is playing the Doctor and his Ganger duplicate). They can, though, tell us about the gunge in the flesh bowl.

“It looks like a lovely, bubbly warm jacuzzi,” says Sarah. “But it’s not. It’s made of food emulsifier or something.”

“It looks like cream with bits of jelly in it,” says Marshall.

“It's got veins in it,” says Sarah. Then they're called back to the set.

Mark Bonnar and Leon Vickers are next, showing off their acid suit costumes and again explaining who their characters are. They, too, play up the scariness of the story. Mark says that recording it “in castles and abbeys gives it a proper old Doctor Who feel. It's the 22nd century but a mix of the old and the new.”

“Some of the sets [on location] have been incredible,” agrees Leon. “You don’t need to imagine too much because there’s so much to work off. It's like a working factory.”

Raquel Cassidy just has time to tell us about her character, Cleaves, before runner Michael Curtis appears to take the actors back to set.

Producer Marcus Wilson can spare a little more time. “Because this story is a two-parter,” he tells us, “there’s an expectation of a bit more scale. We haven’t built very much for this episode – it's all location. We’re ranging across South Wales to find locations that’ll give us the size and the scale we need for the monastery. We’re also doing multiples of characters [in the Ganger duplicates] so that’s a challenge for costume, make-up and the actors to get their heads around. And there’s a lot of CGI and prosthetic effects. All the departments have been working flat out. It’s quite a big one.”

“There have been challenges,” he admits, from the weather. “For one of the props on this story, we had to dig into the ground. But it was so cold, so solid, we couldn’t break the ground for love nor money.” So what did he do? “You just keep going, you get it done. Because it’s on telly in April and you can’t stop.”

We get 11 minutes with Arthur Darvill in the middle of the afternoon. We ask if he dies a lot this series, and how Rory might have changed since last series. I've moved away from the heater to let him get warm and when I ask my first question, I'm shivering with cold – which makes the others laugh.

Arthur can't tell us about forthcoming villains but is allowed to discuss Utah. “We spent about five days out there, and it took me four of them to come to terms with being there. You just see all this amazing scenery you know from films not in a real context. But it's so vast, you can see for miles – and when you move your head, nothing moves because it's so far away. So you've got no sense of perspective, it's like looking at a flat image. It was weird to be out there, running in a desert, tumbleweed going past. And working with the American crew was fun. We had a lot to do out there but we got some really good stuff.” I ask if being there so briefly meant Arthur had to work through his jet lag. “We had a day off at the beginning, but yes. And then we flew back and were working here straight away. So that was tricky, but I find time to nap.”

Then Arthur is called back to set, but a bit later is able to hurry back for another eight minutes of questions. Nick asks if Arthur gets to socialise much with his co-stars. “We do as much as we can,” says Arthur. “But the workload is so huge – especially for Matt – that even going out for an hour in the evening is tricky. There's the amount of lines you've got to learn, and knowing you've got five or whatever scenes to get through the next day. But we went to see Arcade Fire last night, which was nice.”

The band Arcade Fire played one night at Cardiff International Arena as part of their Suburbs tour. Nick asks if Arthur and Matt were hassled by fans there. “No, we just put hats on, and I'm quite good at avoiding that kind of attention. It's nice when people come up, but I never know what to say. But it was good to go out and have a bit of life outside work. The thing is, we enjoy what we do on the show and it has to come first.”

It's now about 5.00 pm, it's dark and getting ever colder, but we hold out in our tent by the heater in the hope of speaking to Karen Gillan – who we've occasionally glimpsed on her way to and from set. Elena says with the pressures of the shoot it might not be possible today. We all know, as Arthur just said, that the programme must come first.

Packing up my bag, I check the call sheet and see that after his night out last night, Matt Smith was picked up this morning by his driver Sean Evans at 6.35, was in costume at 7.35, make-up at 7.50 and on set at 8.20. I'm exhausted from the long train journey and sitting in a tent all afternoon, so what must it be like for Matt and the rest of the cast and crew, day-in and day-out on this juggernaut of a series? How on earth do they all stay so cheery and enthused?

Suddenly, Karen Gillan dashes in to join us – all smiles and eager to help. We've just had time to ask how the series has been going when runner Michael tells us a car is waiting to take Karen away. “Can I do this and then travel back with someone else?” Karen asks him, sweetly. Michael calls up third assistant director Heddi-Joy Taylor-Welch on his radio, and while they confer Karen returns to us. “Anyway, so what was the question?”

Nick asks about Doctor Who's popularity in the US. As she answers, she talks very fast – one eye on Michael, still on the radio. “We were in the middle of nowhere in Utah – and I mean the middle of nowhere – and there were all these fans with signs saying, 'Autographs please!'. They'd travelled from all over, from Colorado and places like that.”

“Sorry guys,” says Michael. “Fine, but no more than five minutes.”

So we keep it quick. Karen tells us about married life with Rory, and enthuses about “ a certain new monster that was quite easy to react to, because it's so physically disturbing. Kids are gonna be freaked!” She's full of praise for the character-based story they're shooting at the moment, and – like Matt and Arthur – doesn't know what's coming next in the series.

“Guys, I think we'll have to let Karen go,” says Elena. “We can pick extra bits up – you'll speak to them again for further episodes.” So Karen darts away, and Nick, Kevin and I pack up our things and begin the long journey home.

The crew will be back at Neath Abbey tomorrow – a Saturday – and then on Monday at Chepstow Castle, battling the elements to get the job done. Even when, a week after our visit, a snowstorm means recording must be postponed until the new year...

[Thanks to Nick Setchfield and Kevin Harley, and to Paul Lang for sending me on location in the first place.]

“That was the most interesting episode I did on Doctor Who – the monastery one,” recalls location manager Nicky James of The Rebel Flesh.

“We filmed in five castles, and had to fit it all together like a jigsaw – which is what I think we'll be doing on one of my episodes for this new series. The Rebel Flesh required so many different rooms – machine rooms, a basement where they held all that liquid, and very long corridors. We started at Cardiff Castle for the long corridors there. Then we went to Caerphilly Castle, which was great for a lot of the machine rooms but didn’t have the corridors. Then it was Neath Abbey which had the great undercroft – none of the others had an undercroft at all. We had a day at Chepstow Castle, and then there was a fantastic, Harry Potter-esque room for the crews' living room, which we shot at at St Donat’s Castle. So it was the best rooms and parts of each place that we went to. But the whole thing was supposed to be a monastery on an island, and there wasn't anything like that – so that was all done in CGI.”