The final day of NFTS Springboard Week 2020 finished on a high with the new students enjoying an entertaining and insightful Masterclass from the inimitable Russell T Davies. Creator of Queer as Folk and Years and Years, he’s the showrunner who fulfilled a lifelong ambition to revive Doctor Who for a new generation (and yes, he’s still the Doctor’s biggest fan!)

Jon Wardle and Russell T Davies

In conversation with NFTS Director Jon Wardle, Russell covered a huge amount of ground from his early years working in television, to what being a showrunner really entails and his upcoming new Channel 4 drama, Boys.

Kicking off proceedings, Jon asked when Russell knew he wanted to be a writer: “Growing up in the sixties and seventies, being a writer was alien to me but through being a fan, Doctor Who showed what was possible. When I was young I drew compulsively, cartoons, if you ask any of my school friends that’s what they’ll say I did all the time – and I later realised that was essentially writing, a way of storytelling.”

Russell’s methods mean he is able to complete a script in two to three weeks, revealing that the characters he invents come fully formed. “It’s very instinctive. I don’t need back stories, it’s done with very little conscious thought, the characters’ names are always there, they just come to me very easily.” Russell had some emphatic advice for the aspiring screenwriters in the room: “If you’ve got an idea go and write it. Find the time, go and write until 4am, just get the script written!” Adding, “Writing is a work ethic job – you’ve got to have the nerve to sit there and type.”

After Jon showed a clip from episode two of Queer as Folk, the series that made his name, Russell expressed how “stark and bold” it still felt 20 years on from making its debut. The clip really was a masterclass in how to establish three lead characters without any dialogue with Russell reflecting: “I’m a big believer that Episode 2 should always start the whole series again, reminding you who everyone is.” 

Russell touched on the huge responsibility of taking the reins of Doctor Who, one of the UK’s biggest shows which he re-launched for a new generation in 2005. “Over 40 years of research went into that show! My love for Doctor Who is so embedded in me, it’s instinctive, I know it so well, inside and out.”

As Doctor Who showrunner, at one point Russell was juggling several different spin offs as well as Doctor Who itself – a testament to his tremendous work ethic: “I don’t know any lazy writers.” With each production made entirely in Cardiff, Russell was a trailblazer for championing the need for productions to be made in the regions. “It’s proof you don’t need to live in London, I’ve never needed to. Budgets are spent on local crew and that has a positive knock on effect to the local economy.”

Russell described the role of Showrunner as “taking the job of writer to its natural conclusion – being involved in all aspects of the production, being involved in all the decisions – as who knows better than the writer all the details of what the story is?”

Russell T Davies on the set of Doctor Who

Russell has worked with a number of NFTS graduates over the years and praised the work of Directing Fiction graduate Lewis Arnold (Broadchurch, Banana), Editing Graduate Paulo Pandolpho (The Crown) and Directing Fiction graduate Charles McDougall (Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives) among others. Russell also expressed great admiration for NFTS graduate Laurie Nunn’s global Netflix hit Sex Education, calling it as “a beacon of hope for the future and absolutely excellent.”

Showing students a clip from Years and Years, featuring Emma Thompson as a divisive politician, Jon described the futuristic family drama as “state of the nation film making”. Attending the NFTS on the day the UK left the EU (Brexit Day) Russell revealed it was a series he’d been wanting to write for a very long time. “It was a hard concept to explain, and I’m a big believer in a one-line pitch but it felt like an extension of the news, so current.”

Russell T Davies with new NFTS students

Where does Russell draw his inspiration from? “Some of it is from life. Boys (his upcoming new series will explore the lives of three young gay men affected by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s) was inspired by my friend Jill. She was on the wards in the eighties, hundreds of her friends died. I’m amazed I didn’t write this series first but I needed all my past experiences to write it well.” Reflecting, “But whatever you’re writing, if you’re writing well, it’s got to be personal.”

With Springboard Week 2020 coming to a close, in true Russell T Davies style, he left the students with some parting words of advice they will definitely remember: “Don’t limit yourself, there’s no limit in your head. Oh, and please employ me when you’re all in charge!”

Image courtesy of Russell T Davies Instagram (@russelltdavies63)

Of the Masterclass, Serina, a new first year on the Creative Business for Entrepreneurs and Executives course commented: “So much was relatable there and there was humour as well which left me feeling inspired. Russell lived up to my expectations, his Masterclass ended Springboard on a high.”

Joshua, a new student on our Camera, Sound and Vision Mixing course summed up Springboard Week 2020: “I found the whole week very entertaining and met lots of new students, people I wouldn’t have met before. I loved Russell’s Masterclass, I’ve admired him since I was young so it was fascinating to hear directly from him.”

Jon Wardle, Russell T Davies and Venetia Hawkes with NFTS students