There are many perks to living in Cardiff. It’s a small but varied place – a former coal port turned European capital that was recently declared the UK’s most livable city. We even had Barrack Obama in town this month.
But as fun as it is to play host to world leaders, I’m far more excited by the frequent visits of a certain Time Lord…
I remember the BBC’s announcement that Doctor Who was to return as a double-whammy. First came the excitement: my favourite show – the show I had waited 16 years to see again – was finally coming back. But then came the realisation that it had been farmed out to BBC Wales and, despite a momentary frisson of national pride, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. BBC Wales didn’t make sci-fi adventures, they made local news bulletins, documentaries about pit ponies and kitchen sink dramas about Welsh people with Welsh problems. It was provincial, low budget, small scale. The Beeb were clearly trying to bury the show before it had even started.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. Not only did that first series dispel my doubts, it established Cardiff as the Mecca for British screen drama and it’s now quite common to bump into film crews and stars on the streets. And I’ve had more than my fair share of luck when it comes to catching Doctor Who in the wild.
I work for Cardiff University, which is a regular haunt of the Doctor Who production team thanks to its eclectic mix of architecture. It boasts everything from Victorian civic buildings, mid-century brutalist towers and ultra-modern research centres. One of the latter, the Hadyn Ellis building, features prominently in this Saturday’s episode, ‘Time Heist’, in which it doubles as the Bank of Karabraxos. I wandered in and snapped a few shots of the crew setting up the security cage set in the main foyer. (Click on any of the images to embiggen).
The next day, I popped back for the filming itself. What did I see? Well, an awful lot of striding, really. Capaldi, Coleman and guest star Jonathan Bailey filmed at least two scenes, marching purposefully through the security gates from one end of the foyer to the other, in each direction. (As glimpsed in a couple of the official publicity shots released by BBC America this week). An enormous lighting rig had been set up on a crane outside the building, pouring light through the glass walls of the foyer. Whatever else Karabraxos is, it’s apparently very bright.
It was all quite fun to watch but, as with all my experiences of filming, I was struck by just how long everything took. Even the simplest of shots – in this case, walking from one end of the room to the other – required quarter of an hour and several dozen people to set up: blocking the shots, checking the cameras, altering the lights, adjusting the set, retouching the costumes, rehearsing lines, etc. Doing it every day must be an interminable experience.
Perhaps that’s why Peter Capaldi was so keen to meet people. He roamed the building between each take, seeking out the staff, students and fans, shaking hands, sharing jokes and jelly babies and posing for photos.
That’s how he found me. I was introducing a friend to my little boy, whom I’d dragged along for the day, when Capaldi just wandered up and said hello. We chatted briefly (I can’t remember what we spoke about – I was squeeing internally) before he asked me if I wanted a photo. Silliest question I’ve ever heard.
So what’s my lasting impression of my meeting with the new Doctor? He is without question an extremely nice man; warm, reassuring and interested. But there’s no escaping those eyes. They’re always angry, even when he’s smiling and it’s a disorienting experience to share such a cozy chat with someone who looks as if they might be about to make you cry. But that’s what makes him so excellent for the part. And even though he was only in the building for a few hours, he took the time to sign more than 200 photos for members of staff before he left. Long may he last.
Coincidentally, I was in the city centre a few weeks later, heading for a train, when I found the street blocked by a fleet of vans and a crowd of onlookers. One of them turned away and slouched past me.
‘Can’t go down there, mate,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
He gave a tired shrug. ‘Cybermen,’ he muttered, and kept walking.
Like I said. Perks.