What a box of crackers! The stories behind this year”s feast of Christmas TV treats
Many moons ago, when Doctor Who was just a memory for a few die-hard fans, the Fast Show’s Arabella Weir was asked to play a female incarnation of the Time Lord for a radio play. She wasn’t going to do it until her Doctor Who mad flatmate convinced her.
When he had moved in with her, he brought with him a boxful of Doctor Who figurines and a collection of the show’s magazines, which were kept in strict chronological order.
There is grainy footage from the ‘making of’ video of the play showing Arabella proclaiming in her loud plummy tones: ‘I’m only really doing this because my best friend David Tennant loves Doctor Who and he got a part in it. He’s the sixth alien.’
Festive: Claire Skinner and Matt Smith
Eight years on and David Tennant is still probably regarded as the most loved Doctor of all.
During his tenure on the show (between 2005 and 2010), Arabella was a frequent visitor to its Cardiff studios and begged producers for a part alongside her long-term friend.
David may have made way for Matt Smith, but the story has come full circle as Arabella is back in Doctor Who for its Christmas special — this time as an alien.
And with whom will she be watching her appearance on Christmas Day David, of course, his fiance Georgia Moffett — daughter of the fifth Time Lord Peter Davison — and their seven-month-old daughter, Olive.
This year’s special is based on The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It is World War II and widow Madge Arwell (played by Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner) and her two children are evacuated to a gloomy old house in Dorset where the caretaker is a strange young man in a bow tie.
They enter a mysterious blue cupboard where they are confronted by Arabella’s alien character, which ‘looks something like a Ninja turtle’.
Arabella says she was promised a role in Doctor Who during Tennant’s time on the show. ‘And even when he left they said they would find one. But I was rather bitter and said: “It’s too late now.”
‘But now I’m rather excited, because it gets to be my thing rather than my mate’s. Now it’s all about me!
‘David and his family will be at my house on Christmas Day and we had better be watching it. I’m sure he’ll want to; he is still a Doctor Who geek.’
Arabella and David have been the closest of friends for nearly 20 years after meeting on the BBC drama Takin’ Over the Asylum.
There are ten years between them and, on the surface, they don’t appear to have much in common.
Festive treat: The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe is on Christmas Day
He is Scottish, the son of a Church of Scotland minister and, apart from Doctor Who, is famous for his serious acting.
She grew up in North London, the daughter of former British Ambassador Sir Michael Weir, and is famous for her curves and catchphrase: ‘Does my bum look big in this’
He has admitted that when they met he was overawed by her apparent confidence. But they bonded over their Scottish Presbyterian upbringings.
‘We just hit it off in that way that very occasionally in your life you do,’ she says.
‘There were a lot of similarities in the way we were brought up. My parents were Scottish and had that whole stern “Och, don’t get ahead of yourself” attitude.
‘There was never any sexual spark between David and I, but we became great pals.
‘At that time I lived in a big house I couldn’t afford. He said he wanted to move to London, so he became my lodger. He ended up staying for six years.’
Like all flatmates, they had their differences. When I tell her that David has called her ‘anally retentive’, she laughs: ‘That’s priceless coming from him. David is a total geek. He alphabetises his CD collection and I really did take the mick out of him for his Doctor Who memorabilia — I told him that no one in their 20s still collected Doctor Who magazines.
‘But I do have issues around the dishwasher. I don’t understand why, if something just needs a quick rinse, it has to go in there.
‘But we’ve always been there for each other and he’s godfather to my children.’
Does my bum look big in this Arabella Weir as an alien in the Doctor Who Christmas special
Arabella was one of the first people David called when he got the role of Doctor Who.
‘He rang me up and said: “I’ve just got the best job in the world.”
‘His name had come up as a possible James Bond, so I asked if it was that. “No, better,” he said.
‘I was head of my school’s parent-teacher association at the time he told me about the role, so the first thing I said was: “can you open my summer fair”
‘He asked: “Could you not be a bit more excited for me” I said: “Yes, I know it’s your lifetime dream and all of that, but if you do my summer fair we will be quids in.” ’
He did, and there was a queue for more than a mile around the block.
The pair have always been there to give each other advice when it comes to work. Arabella recalls a time when she had been given a ‘big, big money offer’ to do Celebrity Big Brother when her career was going through a quiet time.
David warned her not to do it.
‘He told me: “Arri, it is the death of hope!” I had to admit, he was right. It’s where you’ve gone when it’s all over for you, so I turned it down.’
Similarly, she was there for David when he was considering leaving Doctor Who. ‘He agonised over it, but how long do you stay at the party He knew he had to do other stuff as he is an actor first and foremost.
‘I told him he will never know when to leave, but you don’t want to be hanging around until people say: “not them, aren’t they a bit old for this.” You never know when to stop — just ask Bruce Forsyth.’
The one time she ignored his advice was when she was offered Dancing On Ice — though she had to pull out of the show after an accident.
‘Actually, I hate reality shows and have always turned them down in the past,’ she says. ‘I get offered Come Dine With Me all the time, but why would I want somebody such as Michael Barrymore’s former boyfriend looking around my house’
Arabella is strict about what her children can watch on TV. No reality talent shows are allowed and they also could not see her in the controversial Skins. So another pleasure of taking the Doctor Who part, which also stars Bill Bailey, is that she can watch it with her children.
‘I think this may be the last Christmas where I don’t have to pin them down to watch Doctor Who with me,’ she says. ‘But they still think it’s a bit cool.
‘It’s thrilling to do something that people love this much. Even adults — when I tell them I am in the Doctor Who Christmas special —ask: “are you really Good God.”
‘It’s like I’ve slept with someone out of Take That. Which I haven’t done, by the way. I really haven’t.
‘I wouldn’t have minded Robbie Williams, but the rest of them look like estate agents . . . ’
And she’s off again.
The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe is on Christmas Day, BBC 1, 7pm.
The last time we saw Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, they had been cornered by the evil Moriarty. Several guns were pointing at them, while the detective was aiming his own firearm at a bomb that could blow them all apart.
It’s been a long 18-month wait to find out what happens to Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation. But the good news is that Sherlock is back. And, without trying to spoil things, it appears that he escapes Moriarty’s clutches — for the time being at least — as there are three new episodes.
Sherlock is clearly back in fashion again. At the cinema you can see Robert Downey Jr in a Hollywood sequel of the famous sleuth. And on the small screen you can catch the much more erudite Benedict Cumberbatch (pictured with Martin Freeman, right).
Both have been huge hits, with the BBC version winning nine million viewers and being sold to 180 countries. The actors admit they were surprised at its success.
The last time we saw Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, they had been cornered by the evil Moriarty
‘We were confident about making it as it was so clever,’ says Benedict. ‘But it was brilliant how big a deal it was. The other day a group of girls fell over each other because they were so busy pointing at me.’
Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson, adds: ‘The popularity was beyond all of our wildest dreams but I wasn’t surprised that people liked it — I knew it was quality and had great writing.’
The problem over the second series has been pinning down the successful team behind it. Writers and creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss also look after Doctor Who. Then there is Benedict, star of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the forthcoming War Horse.
And finally Martin, who nearly turned down the starring role of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s new movie franchise The Hobbit because it coincided with filming for Sherlock.
Fortunately, Jackson just happened to be a Sherlock fan and halted filming in New Zealand for four months to allow Martin to return to Britain for the series. ‘Everyone did juggling on my behalf to make it happen,’ says Martin, who found fame as sales rep Tim in The Office.
I spent a day on location with Martin and Benedict in Cardiff where the set for 221b Baker Street is in two parts in a huge hangar-style hall.
Next door is the set for Doctor Who, but that is firmly under lock and key.
No detail has been left to chance in Sherlock and Watson’s flat. There are test tubes on the kitchen table, dirty dishes in the sink, Sherlock’s violin near the window and a copy of the Daily Mail on a shelf.
‘I have always loved this shambling, slightly chaotic room,’ says Martin. ‘There is a mish-mash of designs, but it’s believable.’
This Sherlock version is set in the present day. The detective uses forensic science and Twitter as much as his more famous methods of deduction.
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There was some controversy at the idea of it, though Sherlockians (as fans are known) have taken it to their hearts. That is partly because despite all the technology it retains a Victorian feel.
‘People wanted to hate it, but couldn’t because it was so true to the Sherlock ethos,’ says Mark, who, as well as co-writing the show, plays the detective’s big brother Mycroft. ‘Sherlock has always been at the cutting edge of technology. This time there will be stuff about the Olympics and Twitter because he is set in the modern world.’
Holmes has some pretty big brains to compete against. First, there is the mysterious Moriarty played by Andrew Scott. And Spooks star Lara Pulver is cast as seductress Irene Adler.
‘We’ve played on the presumption of the gay thing, but Sherlock and Watson are not gay,’ says Benedict. ‘Irene is beautiful and smart. He is sexually unattainable so they have a merry dance with each other . . . and there’s an amazing seduction scene.’
Despite the villains, at the heart of the drama is the friendship between Sherlock and John — but producers struggled to cast the role of Dr Watson until Martin read with Benedict.
Offscreen they are good friends. But just like their TV characters, they could not be more different, with Benedict admitting he has some sympathy for Sherlock’s detachment. Martin, the Surrey comprehensive boy, is just as you would imagine; delightfully down-to-earth, his comments littered with jokes and fruity language. Benedict, who went to Harrow school, is more reserved and several octaves quieter.
The three most famous Holmes stories feature in the latest series, including The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock has his big battle with Moriarty.
Sherlock realises his arch-enemy is not all bad. ‘He knows he doesn’t have a total disregard for human life,’ says Benedict.
Despite the popularity of the last series, the cast know they can’t take anything for granted. ‘We always knew we must not get complacent,’ says Martin.
‘After something has been a success it is easy to pat yourself on the back and think, yeah, we’ve done it. You have to treat it as if it was not a big show last time — you have to play it the way you first played it and not think about people’s perceptions.’
■ Sherlock is on BBC1 on New Year’s Day at 8.10pm.