‘Insane rightwing misogynist? I’m none of those things!’ Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, his Baftas and his critics

The star TV writer has brought David Tennant and Stanley Tucci together for a new BBC drama about good people forced to do bad things. He talks about cliffhangers, ‘powerful, sexy women’ and what it would take for him to kill

Steven Moffat is flouncing down Piccadilly. “I’ve got seven Baftas,” he snarls as we walk through the rain. We have just been refused admission to the sumptuous Bafta restaurant in the West End of London, where Moffat had a lunch date, before which we were planning to do the interview. Moffat didn’t shout: “Don’t you know who I am?” at the receptionist, but it was implied by the way he stood. His wife, the TV producer Sue Vertue, is a Bafta member, but he isn’t, so they won’t let us in even though I’m pretty sure someone made a reservation.

“More if you count the Welsh Bafta,” Moffat adds. “I’d have brought them as evidence, but I probably couldn’t carry them all.”

The former head writer of Doctor Who and Sherlock also has a couple of Primetime Emmys to his name, plus Royal Television Society awards and an OBE. “Hasn’t been much use so far,” he says of the OBE.

What I should realise is that the 60-year-old TV writer is giving a performance. Moffat is too self-aware to throw a hubristic hissy fit. Yet this outrage, one feels, would not have happened to the actors who have found fame from his words over the years: David Tennant, Stanley Tucci, Jenna Coleman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, Pearl Mackie and many others. Writers, though, are never A-list.

Or are they? Moffat’s phone rings. We’re in! Minutes later we are being served and Moffat is telling me he dreams of being a murderer. “It bothers me at night. What would it take for a person like me to kill someone? I know I wouldn’t have the guts. And I’d think it was wrong.”

“You’re too nice a person,” I say.

“Thank you,” Moffat says. “I am, aren’t I?”

Moffat’s excellent new four-part BBC drama, Inside Man, is about what happens when nice people do something they know to be wrong. One of them – an American criminology professor called Jefferson Grieff, played by Stanley Tucci – is on death row after murdering his wife.

David Tennant is the vicar who goes astray in Moffat’s new TV drama Inside Man.
David Tennant is the vicar who goes astray in Moffat’s new TV drama Inside Man. Photograph: Kevin Baker/BBC/Hartswood

Moffat recalls a line from his drama that explains why nice people kill. “David Tennant [who plays a vicar forced into some very illegal acts] is trying to explain his moral scruples to his wife in terms of his Christian religion, and she just says: ‘Jesus didn’t have kids.’” That line comes from Moffat’s sensibility. What would prompt the writer to kill? If someone had harmed or sought to harm his kids. How intriguing it is, then, that in Inside Man, the vicar’s son is played by one of Moffat’s sons.

“The other thing about murder is that it is really hard. Doing nothing is so much easier.” Moffat cites Hitchcock’s 1966 film Torn Curtain to make his point. It takes a professor (played by Paul Newman) and a farmer’s wife eight minutes and eight seconds to murder a Stasi agent. “I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man,” said Hitchcock at the time. The lesson of this for Moffat is clear: solving murder is easy; committing it is harder.

When Moffat was writing Sherlock between 2008 and 2017, he wasn’t concerned about such matters. “Sherlock turns up after the crime has been committed. He comes in time to see the body in the library, and solves the crime by – ahem! – guessing accurately. But actually the real drama is before he arrives. I can see why that’s a good formula.”

Benedict Cumberbatch and bloodhound on the set of Sherlock, 2016.
Benedict Cumberbatch and bloodhound on the set of Sherlock, 2016. Photograph: BBC/Hartswood Films/PA

Does he think Sherlock was formulaic? “We don’t think of shows like Sherlock as dramas,” says Moffat. “We think of them as entertainment, as puzzle boxes. Nothing wrong with that, or at least I don’t think so. But a lot of people do. They see what I do as merely clever.” That clearly rankles, as did the reviews he got when the backlash began against Sherlock’s scripted cleverness. “My favourite review was one of Sherlock that went: ‘As ever, regrettably, it falls back on cleverness.’ Falls back on?” he snarls again. “That was just my default position. Being smarter than you. The other one was: ‘Why can’t Sherlock just be ordinary?’ Why? Maybe because ordinary wouldn’t have made Sherlock an international success.”

All that is true, but at least one of the Sherlock scripts by Moffat and co-writer Mark Gatiss was savaged for sexism. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story A Scandal in Bohemia, Irene Adler is an adventurer who outwits Holmes; in the free adaptation of that story in Sherlock, as Jane Clare Jones put it in the Guardian 10 years ago: “[She is] remade by Moffat high-class dominatrix saved only from certain death by the dramatic intervention of our hero. While Conan Doyle’s original is hardly an exemplar of gender evolution, you’ve got to worry when a woman comes off worse in 2012 than in 1891.”

At the time Moffat, unsurprisingly, didn’t agree. “In the original, Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes was to move house and run away with her husband. That’s not a feminist victory.”

Moffat was also criticised for writing boring female characters during his stewardship of Doctor Who (he took over as head writer from Russell T Davies in 2008). Clare Jones accused him of plucking female characters “from a box marked ‘tired old tropes’ (drip/scold/temptress/earth mother to name but a few)”, adding: “His consequent failure to sketch a compelling central dynamic between the lead and his companion has seriously affected the show’s dramatic power.”

Moffat balks at this, naming two leading female characters he created for Doctor Who. “River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”

When I remind him of these criticisms, Moffat says some coverage has him pegged as “an insane, rightwing misogynist. I’m really none of those things. And I’m certainly no proselytiser for docile women, this heavily subscribed-to myth. I don’t know where it came from. I have never known a docile woman. You step through the door and you accept your junior status. I fucking salute the dog.”

‘Hardly a weak woman’: River Song (played by Alex Kingston) in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who.
‘Hardly a weak woman’: River Song (played by Alex Kingston) in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who. Photograph: BBC/James Stenson

The opening scene of Inside Man is striking in this context, a vignette about a misogynistic lout on a train undone by a far-from-docile woman. The manspreader gazes lasciviously at the passenger opposite, who will turn out to be a key character in the drama, journalist Beth Davenport (played by It’s a Sin’s Lydia West). He gets up to proposition her. Everyone in the carriage is uncomfortable, yet no one does anything. Moffat says he can relate to that mass inaction: “There’s always an argument which loads of cowards like me would make: that if we do nothing at all, it will just stop, so doing nothing is the right thing to do.”

But the scene escalates. A woman takes a photograph of the harassment. The lout demands she delete it. “That’s assault,” he tells her, snatching her phone. “You’ve invaded my personal space and I’m deleting your assault.” He may be ill-informed about the law, but physically he is a scary presence. Until, that is, a third woman stands up and tells him she is livestreaming his assault, and, with a bit of luck, the police will be at the next station to arrest him. Emboldened, other women stand up and start filming him.

The woman who claims to have alerted the police is the hero of the moment; and, in a nice piece of foreshadowing, she is the maths tutor called Janice Fife (played by Dolly Wells) with whom Tennant’s vicar will later clash. We know, then, what the vicar doesn’t: he has picked on the wrong person. “She represents a kind of woman I know,” says Moffat. “The kind of woman who is used to manipulating fools like us with the tilted head and humility. The kind of woman who, when you go one step too far, pushes right back. She’s Ms Pushback. I know that kind of woman for sure.”

I last interviewed Moffat 10 years ago when he had left 7.9 million BBC Sunday night viewers on tenterhooks. Sherlock (Cumberbatch) had plunged from a building, possibly pushed by Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, seemingly to his death. We all knew the sleuth had to survive if there was to be a series three. But how? Perhaps the falling body was Moriarty in a Sherlock mask? Maybe pathologist Molly supplied a corpse to throw from the roof? No matter how many times I asked him, he wouldn’t reveal the secret. “There’s a clue that everybody’s missed,” he told me then, clearly taking pleasure from flummoxing not just me but millions of viewers around the world.

Moffat stopped writing Sherlock in 2017, but, for all that he claims he is not interested in writing more clever-clever crime storylines (“I’ve consciously tried not to write as aphoristically as I have in the past”), he can’t help himself. In Inside Man, for instance, Tucci’s Prof Grieff is essentially Sherlock solving crimes from his cell. Visitors bring him unsolved cases against which he pits his intelligence – aided by a terrifying serial killer in the next cell who has a photographic memory and who, for reasons I can scarcely account for, ate his mother’s foot.

Moffat was born in Paisley, near Glasgow, in 1961. After an MA in English, he became a secondary school English teacher in Greenock. His TV break came in the late 80s, thanks to Harry Secombe. The former Goon visited Thorn primary school in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, to film his religious show, Highway. Moffat’s father, Bill, the school’s headteacher, allowed the show’s producers to film there on condition that they read his son’s script for a TV series about a school newspaper. This became ITV’s Press Gang. During its six-year run, Moffat’s first wife left him for another man. He plundered that break-up for his next project, the BBC sitcom Joking Apart, about a sitcom writer and the rise and fall of his relationship. In later sitcoms Chalk (set in a school) and Coupling (which satirised male commitment phobia), he again mined his own biography.

Moffat’s break came with the TV comedy drama Press Gang, which ran from 1989 to 1993.
Moffat’s break came with the TV comedy drama Press Gang, which ran from 1989 to 1993. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Ever since he fulfilled a childhood dream in 2004 when he was hired to write for Doctor Who, that stuff has been, he says, “action, mystery, suspense, adventure – all those things, opposed to a deep analysis of the failures of the human heart that I could never possibly write”. Why not? “Who wants to read the angst-ridden ravings of a middle-class successful writer who has had his two dream jobs: writing Doctor Who and Sherlock?”

Now, though, his days on those internationally successful franchises are over. His friend Russell T Davies has returned to be Doctor Who’s showrunner, but Moffat, as he told Radio Times in the spring, has no such ambitions. “Everyone can stop worrying. I did it for six seasons on the trot. And I cannot imagine going back into doing that.”

But he has been busy. In 2020, he and Gatiss disinterred Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and wrote a well-received drama series called Dracula, starring Claes Bang and Dolly Wells. “The great thing now is I write for my own pleasure,” he says. “I can write whatever I want.” He is such a name he doesn’t have to write to commission. Maybe those Baftas and the OBE help after all.

Perhaps having a wife who is a big-time TV producer helps, too. Certainly, Vertue had a brilliant idea when it came to casting Inside Man. She told Moffat that Tucci was becalmed during lockdown in Barnes, only a few miles from the couple’s home in Sheen, west London. “Lockdown did have one advantage. It means Stanley was unable to travel and so could play a murderer on death row.” The supermax US prison in which Tucci’s killer awaits execution is really a set in England. “It was right next to David Tennant’s vicarage. You could see it from the window.”

Moffat has also written his first play, The Unfriend, which is transferring to the West End from Chichester. It was inspired by a true story. Two friends had just been on a cruise and fell in with an American woman whom they invited to stay with them in London. “Then they Googled her and found out she was a murderer.” In reality, the couple revoked the invitation; the conceit of Moffat’s play is that the English couple are too polite, too passive to do the same, and invite Frances Barber’s Elsa into their home.

As we finish our chat, Moffat poses for pictures in the nearby graveyard of Wren’s St James church. In his M&S suit, he looks unusually soigne. “I hate this,” he admits. “I’ve always hated being photographed from the days when we’d do cast shots for Doctor Who and all these gorgeous people – Jenna, Matt – would be standing next to this plum duff. In the end I just went with it, turning up in old clothes with food spilled down my T-shirt, safe in the knowledge nobody was really looking at me.” And he heads off through the rain to his lunch date at Bafta. I hope they let him back in.

Inside Man begins on BBC One on Monday 26 September

• This article was amended on 21 and 27 September 2022 to correct a mistranscribed quote from Steven Moffat.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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