(For the other half of the interview - focused on his design of the TARDIS interior seen on screen between 2012 and 2017 - you'll need to buy the digital version of The Essential Doctor Who: The TARDIS.)
A Good Cartoon
Production designer Michael Pickwoad has decided the look of every episode of Doctor Who since 2010. He tells DWM how he builds whole worlds…INTERVIEW BY SIMON GUERRIER
July 1966. London is under attack from a super-computer called WOTAN – a machine so advanced that, in what was then a thrilling sci-fi twist, it can speak to other computers! Now robotic tanks swarm the streets, smashing everything in their path...
“I don't think I watched it,” admits Doctor Who's current production designer, Michael Pickwoad. His father, the character actor William Mervyn, played Sir Charles Summer in three of the four episodes of the The War Machines alongside the First Doctor. But Michael, aged 21 and on a civil engineering degree at Southampton University, had more pressing concerns at the time.
“The World Cup was on around then, wasn't it?” he says. “I remember the final. I was in a yacht off Cowes, on the starboard tack. We were listening to the game on an old hacker radio, a rope round it to keep it in place. And we were approaching a sandbank. Someone said, 'We've got to go about!' but the radio didn't get such good reception on the port tack! England were about to win, but we were coming up to the sandbank very fast...”
But he doesn't remember his dad being in Doctor Who? Michael laughs. “I've seen it since. My father runs the computer, doesn't he? Yes, that was rather splendid. We still get royalties, my two brothers and myself. Enough for a good meal every now and again.”
In 1966, Michael had little thought of following his father into a career in film and television. Although Michael's mother had been an architect and theatre designer, he studied engineering because, “I wanted to design yachts. I started off doing aeronautical engineering, but the maths got a bit much and I changed courses.”
So what happened? “Yachts... weren't very practical. After university, I was sort of sitting round, as one did in the 60s, doing up Rolls-Royces and other sorts of things, and my father said, 'Now what are you going to do?' That was a dreadful question. But I'd always liked making things and I thought film design sounded fun. My father was working on The Best House in London, a film being made at Shepperton Studios, so he spoke to the art director about me. I was told to speak to the studio's chief construction manager, so with great trepidation I did. And he introduced me to an art director who was having trouble finding someone to work in the art department. It was a junior position but it was an advertised job which meant I got a union card. So that's how we started.”
The first film Michael worked on was a thriller, The Twisted Nerve, in 1968. “It was rather nice that one's first film was by the Boulting brothers – they were such part of the British film industry.”
In 1972 Michael got his first credit as art director on Blinker's Spy Spotter, made by the Children's Film Foundation – the first of 13 CFF productions he worked on. The films were very low budget, so Michael was location manager and the entire art department. “There was lots of doubling up,” he says. “But that was very useful: you learnt a lot. Even now when I'm looking for locations on Doctor Who I think, 'Oh, where could the unit park?' and picky things like that. It's a very practical world, the film world, and most people do other jobs in it.”
On the CFF production Chimp Mates (1976), Michael worked with his father. “The only time we did! It was about a family looking after a chimpanzee, and he played the vicar in a church where it runs amok.” For another CFF film, A Hitch in Time (1978), Michael had to design and build a time machine to be operated by a former Doctor Who.
“I liked Patrick Troughton a lot,” he enthuses. “He was quite humorous, and was a friend of my father's. But yes, the time machine! I had to build one for Dawn French on [1990s TV series] Murder Most Horrid, too. Obviously I was destined to do Doctor Who!”
In 1980, Michael was art director on the fantasy film Hawk the Slayer, and that led directly to him working on a small-scale film about two out-of-work actors at the end of the 1960s.
“Bizarrely,” says Michael, “if it wasn't for Hawk the Slayer, I would never have done Withnail & I, because [Withnail writer and director] Bruce Robinson met [Hawk writer and director] Terry Marcel at some function and asked him who he should get to go look for some locations. Terry suggested me.”
Withnail & I starred Paul McGann and Richard E Grant – both of whom Michael worked with on Doctor Who last year. “That was fun, yes, and we got to catch up. In a way, that film made us all. Richard sent me a card saying that the flat in London was the perfect set for him to be Withnail. Mind you, the film was set in the 60s and Bruce Robinson, who wrote it, and a lot of us were the same sort of age. We understood the absurdity of the 60s – and the simplicity. It's nice to make things simply understandable.” He laughs. “Whether that foetid kitchen was simply understandable, I don't know.”
A dilapidated flat, an old cottage and a short stretch of motorway wre all that were needed to conjure a vivid sense of the late 1960s. Michael explains that as a production designer, “you usually have to shorthand things. It's rather like a good cartoon. At school, we had to read books after lunch. We weren't allowed comics, but the school library had bound copies of [satirical magazine] Punch since 1845, and I went through all of them – looking at the pictures and jokes. So I have an intimate knowledge of nineteenth-century humour and the way drawings changed over the years.”
For Michael, that education was crucial to the work he does now. “A good cartoon will tell you everything you need to know about the setting – which is like a film set. If you want to know all about something, either look at a good children's book – because they're very succinct – or a good cartoon. You need iconic things that will tell you instantly where you are.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Michael’s work was dominated by films and TV set in the past, requiring him to establish a setting quickly and economically. His credits include the true-life crime film Let Him Have It (1991, and starring future Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston in his first major role). There were adaptations of books by Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie, and biographies of Princess Margaret and Lord Longford.
“As the designer, you've got to do what the script doesn't – not that the writer couldn't do it, but if he wrote all that description, the script would be too long. When I did the lovely David Copperfield with Peter Medak [in 2000], I made sure I'd read the book. Some authors are very undescriptive but not Dickens, and it’s nice to be subliminal: if anybody really knows the book, they will see the right things.”
Why is that important? “You have the opportunity to inform. I hate misinforming. The other day I saw a film about Tolstoy. They had Chekov there at his death, but Chekov died four years before him! That I find iniquitous. No wonder nobody knows anything these days, because they see things like that and believe it.” He sighs. “Sometimes it doesn't matter but it's nice to get things right.”
Michael had some experience of science-fiction before he worked on Doctor Who – as well as the time machines discussed earlier, he was production designer on the 2009 remake of The Prisoner. Yet it was a complete surprise when, in 2010, producer Sanne Wohlenberg asked him in to discuss the Doctor Who Christmas special, A Christmas Carol.
“I thought, ‘Why on earth do they want me?’” he laughs. “And she had to persuade the BBC that I wasn't too old. But they sent me some episodes to look at, and then I could see why I might have been asked. Not that I was better than anyone else, but I think that the character of the everyday things was not being paid the same attention as making ray guns. If the ordinary, everyday stuff is believable, the science fiction is even more believable. Take Clara's flat. You can make things quite sweet there, and as fun as some of the more apparently exciting things.”
Doctor Who's showrunner Steven Moffat once described his job as being “in charge of the fiction” in the series. So is Michael in charge of what the show looks like? “Yes,” he says. He runs the art department, overseeing a supervising art director, draftsmen, art directors, standby art directors, set decoraters and props people. “It all fans out. Then there's the construction manager and construction crew.”
It’s difficult to quantify the size of the team Michael is in charge of because, “everybody is freelance. But there are eight or nine in the immediate art department, and then we have the construction manager and maybe 22 carpenters – maybe more. But then the sets we're building are bigger at the moment. Then there's the prop crew as well. There are hundreds of people on a film, but for a BBC drama we have quite a lot.”
DWM speaks to Michael on 24 March 2014 and work has just begun on the third production block of Season 8 with new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. “Right now, I'm dealing with four directors,” says Michael. “One we've just finished with, one is finishing today but there's still a shoot left over from the very first one. Today is the first shooting on the third block and the director on the fourth block has just started.”
Michael once described his job as like being in command of a ship, but surely he’s more of an admiral, in charge of several ships at once. He laughs. “The fleet, yes. Filming has always been like three-dimensional chess. You have to think in different plains and different timezones. I suppose that's very Doctor Who.”
He gives an example: “In the last series, all of a sudden, one script wasn't ready so we had to bring forward Cold War. There were three weeks to the shooting, so we had a week to design a nuclear submarine and a fortnight to build it.”
Where do you research a thing like that – isn’t it sort of top secret? “You look it up in books,” says Michael. “One has an understanding generally – I don't suppose everybody does but I like ships and I tend to retain information. We could get photographs of the exterior: even with Soviet submarines there were lots of photos of the outsides. But I wanted a proper photograph or drawings of the inside. Suddenly someone found a cross-section – a perspective model of an American nuclear submarine. It showed how the missiles went right through it and the angles of the walls depending on where you were.” He laughs. “If you're chasing an ice monster around, it doesn't really matter where you are, as long as it looks as though you're in a submarine.”
The set also had to be built to accommodate the Ice Warrior. “He's taller than he might have been, which caused me to raise a few ceilings in the design. Oh, but the hatches were interesting. All the bulkheads had round hatches, and they scaled up to about two feet six in diameter. I thought, ‘Oh God, no one's going to fit through those.’ But within moments, the prop team were hopping through them and then Matt Smith was doing the same, which of course made it look more real than it being a doorway you just walk through.”
But Cold War was an exception. How much warning does Michael usually get of what a story will require? “Generally, when you get the script. Occasionally you get hints before then about what’s it’s going to be about.”
As head of the department, Michael is in charge of the budget. “It's not a lot but it creeps up a bit each year. Usually, if you manage to deliver something to a budget then you get asked to do more for less next year. But not here. It's not really a lot compared to feature films, but then some episodes take more and some take less.” He laughs. “Often it's a whole lot more.” So the budget is not the same per episode? “It's worked out on an average.”
Presumably, Michael needs some idea of what's coming in the series to plan the budget. “You attempt that. Then often what happens is that the one you think is not going to be expensive suddenly has several scenes creep in that spoil your plans!”
Once Michael has a script in front of him, what’s the process? “I talk to the producers and the director about how they see whatever it is, and I say, ‘Don't be silly, we can't do that.’” He laughs. “It all comes together. Then I look for locations.”
How easy is it to find locations for Doctor Who? “I have to say, generally everyone in Wales has been extremely helpful. Cadw – the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage – often suggests places: do we want to film in Caerphilly Castle or their other castles? But then, people love to see where films were made: Highclere Castle must be doing very well out of [ITV drama] Downton Abbey in terms of visitors. So it doesn't do them any harm.”
But Doctor Who has been made in Wales for 10 years. Is there any danger of running out of locations? “No, it's like running short of actors: the same actor can play a different person. If something is right for it – an actor or location – it can be used in lots of different ways.”
How closely does Michael have to work with other departments, such as costume or special effects? “You talk about it at tone meetings and have a general idea what everybody's doing, but there's so much to do you just get on with what you need to.” So he’s not working to an agreed colour palette or anything? “The palette is one of the last things I think about, unless the production is called Lovely Blue or whatever, where there's a relevance for the colour. Some directors like to choose a particular colour or shade but, for me, it’s more about finding the right feel. Often you don't need to be told what colour it is because if the mood is X then the colour will be Y. It's very automatic. Shape is more important.”
Since 2009, Doctor Who has been shot in high definition. Does that mean Michael has to work harder on detail? “Well, yes. But you'd hope the sets would have stood up to it anyway. With certain materials or plastic sheets and things you've got to be careful not to see a join. But it's fairly logical what you need to do.”
Last year, the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, was shot in 3D, which had more of an effect on Michael’s job. “To make 3D work you need longer, deeper sets with things in different planes – but then you don't want to be more interested by the fact it's in 3D than in the story.”
That reminds DWM of something: Doctor Who's showrunner, Steven Moffat, was once asked why he'd set his other hit series, Sherlock, in the present day. “The moment you do a period piece you’ve got one of two approaches,” Steven replied. “You either funk it up a bit and try and pretend the Victorian era was just like now, or you lavish detail on it. In either case you make the background the story. Now, that is lovely and true if you are talking about a story that’s about Victorian England but the Sherlock Holmes stories are detective stories. The background should stand at the back and, frankly, the foreground – the great heroic stories of detection – should be what it’s about.”
Michael considers that carefully. “I'm not sure I would necessarily get very worried about that,” he says. “If there's more detail than you would normally understand then it might distract people. They might watch the background because it's different to what they'd otherwise understand. You need to know what is appropriate for that moment. Sometimes you think it could be prettier or starker: it's the emotion of it that really matters.”
In a previous interview Michael cited The Curse of the Black Spot (2011) as a favourite episode, which is no surprise given his passion for sailing. “Oh, designing a pirate ship!” he beams. “Ship's cabins and things. Yes, that was a lovely one.”
But DWM notes that in that previous interview he spoke of designing “what people thought a ship was like”. Does that mean it's not what a ship is really like? Has he been misinforming us? He laughs.
“You have to imagine it as a child would. I've just done a thing for the Story Museum in Oxford. They've got various writers photographed as the characters in books they liked. Philip Pullman was being Long John Silver and I was asked to do a setting for the picture, so I put it in the doorway of a boat and made a bit of the deck of a ship. You know what a ship feels like and so you want to transmit that. You think about what you would have liked if you were a child going on to a pretend boat. What would make it be like the boat in a story? It's like any set, really – a railway station or house or whatever. What should it feel like? As soon as you walk in, you want to instantly know where you are.”
That applied when Michael redesigned the TARDIS in 2012 – the set had to be familiar but completely new. For The Day of the Doctor (2013), Michael had to supply four different TARDIS interiors for four different Doctors.
Michael counts them off on his fingers. “Matt's one we obviously had. The David Tennant one, that was easy.” Those scenes were filmed on the version of the set displayed at the Doctor Who Exhibition – a short walk from the BBC Roath Lock studios where Doctor Who is produced.
Michael counts off another finger. “Doing the John Hurt one was a bit of a runaround. It was sort of in between other TARDISes.”
In fact, Steven Moffat's script described “the classic version of the console room – gleaming white roundels on the wall”. The plan had been to use the 1980s version of the TARDIS on display at the same exhibition as the Tennant one. “We wanted to use it,” explains Michael, “but we couldn't because of the timings of things. So we used a bit of the set from the programme about the making of Doctor Who [An Adventure in Space and Time] and bits of others – it was a good mixture of old and new.”
“There was a slight allegory of that on the wall of the National Gallery,” he continues. “That was the [American pop artist] Andy Warhol version of the TARDIS.” He grins. “Where did Warhol disappear for two years, you see? There's a story there.”
This was for the scene in The Day of the Doctor in which former Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, makes a brief appearance. It's suggested he might be a future version of the Doctor. “Yes, working as a curator in the gallery, like a retirement job for the head of the secret service,” says Michael. Is the suggestion, then, that the National Gallery is his TARDIS? It does seems bigger on the inside...
“Exactly,” laughs Michael. “So we had some sort of strange installation on the wall for that scene, with that TARDIS feel to it. We tried to make it an artwork in its own right for anybody who knows nothing about TARDISes and to keep the surprise. Then you see the curator and go, 'Of course!'”
In the same story we got a peek at the Under Gallery, where art deemed too dangerous for public consumption is kept – which allowed Michael some fun. At one point, we see the Doctor dash past a huge painting of figures on a churning sea. It's Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa – except the drowning sailors are Cybermen.
Michael laughs. “Yes, I was a bit wicked there. I gave that to the stand-by art director, Jim McCallum: he did the preparation artwork. There are more of them, too: a Rembrandt painting of dark-hatted burghers but they're Oods, and The Boyhood of Raleigh [the famous painting by Millais] but with a Dalek pointing out to sea.”
He's unapologetic. “It fitted the scale and feel of the story. I remember seeing The Raft of the Medusa at the Tate when I was at school [the London art gallery has a full-scale copy in Room 8]. It's 23 feet long, that painting! It's a very impressive piece. Paintings like that were the films of their day: someone would take a gallery in Piccadilly and then people would pay to see, say, the cataclysmic paintings of John Martin [1789-1854], and stare in wonder at them.”
“I spoke before about informing people. I find that sort of wit fun because it links different ways of thinking. It makes you think. Even if you don't understand it at the time, you might later on. I suppose one just likes to make things particular. Whatever you do, it should be more than just, 'That'll do'. You want it to have some meaning of its own.”
Are there lots of things like this – details Michael knows are in the episodes that no one else ever spots?
“Well, there are sets being used again. The Under Gallery was used twice in that story, as two different rooms. Then it became the undercroft of the church in the Christmas special [The Time of the Doctor]. It's used in an episode of this series we're making now, then it will be taken down and bits of the vault will be used in another set coming up. Any good elements you just keep. Even with corridors, with a repetition of elements, you can turn them into something else. You can use bits of TARDIS corridors for all sorts of things.”
He gives one example: The Night of the Doctor, last year's online mini-adventure starring Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor. “We needed a spaceship,” says Michael. “We drew something up, but it was almost the day before shooting, and the construction team said there was no way they could build it in time. So I said, 'Right', and went off to the workshop. We pulled out some of the TARDIS corridors and turned them upside down. With those and some other bits we just built this spaceship. There was no other way of doing it. But if the bits are of a useful shape, you use them for a whole lot of things.”
It's not just the TARDIS. For The Impossible Astronaut (2011), Michael's team recreated the Oval Office of US President Nixon. You'd think such a specific, real place could only be used once, but the set was later reworked as the acid well and birthing chamber in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People and then the maternity ward in A Good Man Goes To War. “You could change it enough to be suitably different,” says Michael. But did he know he was going to use it in more than one story when he first built it? “No,” he says. “But it was a nice shape and it seemed a shame to just take it down. You know, it was 16 feet tall but, because it was oval, it stood itself up quite simply.”
DWM wants to understand the way that Michael works, and the process from his receiving a script to the set being ready for the actors. He opens a bulging A4 binder filled with pencil sketches: his work on 2013 Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor.
“You get the script and start drawing ideas,” he says, leafing through the pages. “Give me a pencil and a block of A4 paper and I'll design the world. I just keep drawing and drawing until I get something right, and then I pass that over to get approval. They'll say what they like or don't like. And after a tone meeting, you gradually understand what's wanted and we carry on from there.”
He reaches a series of drawings of a long, lavish room. “This is Tasha Lem's chapel, working out the details of her bed. I'm not skilled at drawing on computers but if you're starting from scratch, to get the essence down, a pencil is best anyway.”
Isn't that an old fashioned way of doing things? Michael shakes his head. “You need to be able to sit in a pub at lunchtime with a piece of paper and a pencil and draw a picture with measurements on it from which someone can build the set. Because one day you might be at a place where there's no battery and no power so your computer wouldn't work anyway. And it's very useful to define your ideas very simply on paper. A well drawn, measured sketch is worth much more than a rather inaccurate drawing.”
He turns a page and there's a print-out of a painting, taken from the internet, with Michael's notes underneath. “We used this picture for the paintings on the wall in the chapel,” says Michael. It's The Expulsion of Hellodorus from the Temple, by Francesco Solimena (1657-1747). “We just found it online, bought the use of the image and got a copy sent over. We split it into three to be down the walls of chapel.”
But why that picture in particular? Michael shrugs. “It felt right.”
We turn more pages. “Then you're looking at clock towers [for the final, key scenes of the episode], and it goes through all sorts of stages.” There are lots of different drawings – towers that are rounded, triangular, or square, ornate ones, simple ones, different clocks and bell mechanisms... “Here's me working out the different ways of doing something – this way, and then you do something else. But with a piece of paper and a pencil, it's quite cheap. I keep the drawings to show the progression. Some things get used and some don't. But look!” He stops at a sketch that emerges from another drawing. “That's what it looked like in the finished show. That's where I got it. It's nice to be able to find something on paper.”
Does that mean Michael works out what he's drawing as he draws it? “It depends. Sometimes you know exactly what you want. And then it's quite hard to get it as you want it and it becomes something else.”
He shows me a sketch of an ornate doorway and a photograph of a door that he's based it on, reworking the details to create something unique. Does he keep an eye out for things like this – an interesting arch or cornice – not knowing how he'll use it? “Yes, you look at it and think, 'Oh, that's a good way of doing it.' Then I'll photograph it or sometimes I'll draw it or just remember. It's important: you create a wonderful unreality out of everybody else's reality.”
He gives an example. “On The Rebel Flesh, we needed the monastery tower that the Doctor climbs up. I couldn't think what to do. We were using Caerphilly Castle as the main location. We didn't want a communications tower per se because that was sort of wrong – and too difficult to build. Then I was at another location on the other side of the dock in Cardiff, and suddenly saw HMS Monmouth moored there. I thought, 'Ooh, that mast looks interesting!' It looked just like a spire on a church but with these wonderful arms. As it was a military monastery, that seemed just right. So I reproduced it, or a similar sort of thing.”
“To me, that's fun. It's a good idea anyway but in a different context it becomes something else. As long as you haven't copied it – you use the idea of it. It's a simple way of doing things, but often it gives you a specific shape to work on.”
DWM hesitantly asks if Michael would scan some of the sketches so we could use them in the magazine. “Oh,” he says, “It would take me too long to sort any of that out.” And he hands over the whole, fat sketch book. “Scan what you want and then post it back to me.”
What, really? “That's the simplest thing, isn't it?”
DWM is stunned. And so only realises later that this bold, generous act is just typical of how Michael works: there was a problem, but he had a clever, straight-forward solution.
BOX OUT 1: HAPPY FAMILY
Michael might not have watched his father's appearance in Doctor Who when it was transmitted, but his own children take particular interest in the show. His daughter Amy works with him in the art department.
“In fact,” says Michael, “Amy's elder sister – our middle daughter, Katy – painted the portraits of Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins [in the first story Michael worked on, 2010 Christmas special, A Christmas Carol], that one of the Doctor in the manner of Poussaint [in The Impossible Astronaut, 2011] and of Clara [in 2012 Christmas special, The Snowmen].”
DWM points out that the Pickwoads are the first family ever to have three generations work on the show – if you don't include the Davison-Tennants in last year's online comic short, The Five(ish) Doctors. “I know,” says Michael, proudly.
Is it ever difficult, having his children on staff? “To employ your own, you have to have implicit faith in what they do,” he says. “Otherwise you look rather silly. Katy doesn't like being called an artist but she knows how to paint – and the one thing you tend to notice in films is a bad portrait.” She had already painted portraits for the detective series Wallander and a drama about TV critic (and former enemy of Doctor Who) Mary Whitehouse before Michael asked for Katy's help on his first Doctor Who story. “I needed someone who could do the portraits quickly. Much as one would like to employ one's family, you don't think of it in those terms. You think, 'I need someone who can do this, at short notice and not for a vast fortune. And I didn't know anybody else!”
BOX OUT 2: TARDIS TOUR
In November last year, BBC News interviewed Michael Pickwoad about the new TARDIS interior. “It's a bit like a high-tech pumpkin”, he told them, before explaining why, in detail.