As Doctor Who returns to our television screens for its latest season, the last to feature actor Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, Andy Howells sets the Entertainment South Wales co-ordinates to the BBC’s Roath Lock studios, the home of Doctor Who for the past five years…
Doctor Who crashed back on to our television screens on Saturday evening with its tenth new season since it was resurrected by BBC Wales in 2003.
The series which currently stars Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, Pearl Mackie as Bill and Matt Lucas as Nardole, shares its home with two other long-running television dramas Pobol Y Cwm and Casualty at BBC’s Roath Lock studios in Cardiff.
Doctor Who is produced by show-runner Steven Moffat and has its own purpose-built studio at Roath Lock in Cardiff Bay. Over 46 episodes have been produced of the long-running Science-Fiction series since the studios opened g its doors to production in early 2012 with one episode taking an average of three weeks to film.
The Doctor Who studios undergo many changes over several episodes, but one permanent set is that of the Doctor’s time travelling machine, The TARDIS.
On a recent specially invited visit to the TARDIS set, I must admit to more than been a little excited.
A life-long fan of the TV series, I, along with several other journalists were lead along a corridor connecting several Doctor Who studios, affectionately named Russell’s Alley (after Russell T Davies who brought the revived Doctor Who series to Wales back in 2005) and through a studio door which strictly forbids entry to any unauthorised personnel.
Far from any strange odours one might expect of an alien world, the main sense that hits you before arriving on the TARDIS set is the smell of freshly cut wood.
Work is under construction as the new Doctor Who episodes are being recorded. A workman’s bench is evident on the outskirts of the set, waiting to repair several familiar oddities from the Doctor Who series including a Dalek shell. No doubt, all these items have suffered several knocks and scuffles on the busy day-to day production of the series 11,500 square foot set of studio space.
We are all lead up some steps to a wall which houses the familiar front doors of the Doctor’s time travelling machine, The TARDIS, and I have no hesitation when asked by a production manager in volunteering to open the magical Police Box doors that will lead me into a craft that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Visiting the set of The TARDIS retains all the magic you expect and a lifetime of dreams come true, as for fifteen minutes I press switches and move handles on the glowing TARDIS console. I also explore the control room which has many artefacts that have become familiar to regular viewers over the last five years including book cases, a desk and a blackboard from a classic episode that proclaims the words “Run, You Clever Boy!”
It’s a thrill to know that like an archived episode of classic 1960s Doctor Who, all this continuity is maintained because The TARDIS has finally found a permanent touch-down base at the BBC’s Roath Lock studios in Cardiff Bay.
Like Casualty and Pobol Y Cwm, the series is produced on purpose built live sets, and all three shows magically contribute to Roath Lock’s ongoing success producing world class television as Director of BBC Cymru Wales, Rhodri Talfan Davies revealed at the opening of the special Q&A that followed the Roath Lock Studios visit.
“12 years ago, when Doctor Who launched it was, in a way, a new start, it was a single BBC drama,” says Rhodri, “There was practically nothing else happening here in Wales in terms of network television production. Now you look at the studio facilities here in Roath Lock, Bridgend, Swansea Bay and Chepstow, its a community of drama production for international producers, the BBC and many others and long may that continue. Having that breadth of work is a really exciting and essential part of making sure the success here continues.”
Like the changing face of the show’s lead actor, Doctor Who’s early production history in Wales went from production at an old factory site in Newport to the BBC’s Upper Boat Studios in Cardiff.
Doctor Who Production Executive, Tracie Simpson was one of the original team instrumental with the process of setting up a permanent production home for the series at the BBC’s Roath Lock Studios. “We did several trips with the cast and crew to what was to be their main work site,” Tracie recently recalled at the Roath Lock Q&A, “what we’ve got here is absolutely spectacular in terms of studio space.”
“Our shooting ratio is probably 60 in studio and 40 on location, so we spend over half our time at Roath Lock”
The ability to house the UK’s largest green screen technology and share production resources with other TV series has helped boost Doctor Who’s success at Roath Lock even further.
Tracie revealed “We’ve had a prosthetic baby for the Christmas episode (The Return of Doctor Mysterio) from Casualty, (while) Pobol Y Cwm lone us their set, which is one of our character’s flats.”
With a new series of Doctor Who currently underway and a time of change ahead later this year as Chris Chibnall takes over show running duties from Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi vacates the lead role for a new actor, it’s a comfort to know that the future of the world’s favourite Sci-Fi show is grounded in the ongoing success of BBC Roath Lock Studios.
- Andy Howells is a freelance entertainment writer who regularly contributes to the South Wales Argus entertainment section The Guide. Follow Andy on Twitter @EntsSouthWales and on Instagram @retrospaceandy