Another one from DWM #423, and my plan here was not to write anything too overwrought. As far as I can remember, the Richard Curtis quote came from a Q&A session I attended, following a preview screening of the episode at the BFI on the Southbank.
Death is a constant in Doctor Who. The end of last week’s episode was a sharp reminder of that. But Doctor Who is rarely about death, even though our hero has seen countless people lose their lives in battle or to time. Tragic, yes, but it’s how we keep score. When the next adventure arrives grief is put aside and the sadness fades fast.
On 27 July 1890, 37-year-old Vincent van Gogh walked into a field and shot himself in the chest. Although he survived the impact, the injuries he sustained were to prove fatal. He died two days later, attended to by his brother and loyal sponsor, Theo, who reported the artist’s final words as: “La tristesse durera toujours” (the sadness will last forever).
The robustness of the Doctor bashing up against the true frailty of Vincent really shouldn’t have worked. Particularly on BBC One, for a family audience on a Saturday night. But Vincent and the Doctor pulls it off, by being neither fatally glib nor overly mawkish.
Shortly before his episode aired, writer Richard Curtis spoke about covering the weighty topics of van Gogh’s depression within the series. “The more books I read with my children, the more I realise that children’s literature and TV has been confronting complex issues for years,” he said. “I think we are long past the time where children’s entertainment is circumscribed, so I didn’t really find that a challenge to be honest.”
It’s this lack of fear which has made Curtis’ approach so successful. Within the take-no-prisoners Doctor Who format, his script is fast and funny, but it still manages to teach us about a man who did die, and in the most tragic and unromantic circumstances. Someone for whom there wouldn’t be another adventure coming along the following week.
I should say at this point that, from Four Weddings and a Funeral on, I’m no huge fan of Curtis’ writing and his recurring motifs of romance, sentimentality, learning… and Bill Nighy. All are present here, but filtered through a DW sensibility, they really pay off. More astonishingly, it doesn’t feel like a compromise between two mighty brands. The story is both Curtis and Who, as best portrayed over the luxurious – some will say protracted – ending.
It’s meticulously set up, maybe even cynically, but, boy does it work. We have a doleful British indy band balladeering on the soundtrack (‘Chances’ by Athlete, should you be interested), singing: “If I had the chance to start again, then you would be the one I’d come and find”. Meanwhile, Vincent (Tony Curran) is brought to the Musée d’Orsay for the realisation that the pile of good things in his life is taller than he ever realised. And then everyone – choke! – fills up. Despite my cognisance of all the strokes being pulled, even I reddened a little at the eye. I think it was Nighy who got me in the end, his terrific cameo as the bowtie adorned Dr Black who knows something monumental and unsettling has just happened, but can’t quite grasp what it is.
The story earns the luxury of this extended coda by virtue of its earlier brevity and – that word again – robustness in dealing with van Gogh’s tragedy. When the Doctor is set to pontificate that “it seems to me depression is a very complex…” he’s hastily shushed by Vincent, and then we’re immediately into a great sequence with a huffy Time Lord rubbishing Michelangelo (“A whinger”) and Picasso (“Grumpy old goat”).
Unsurprisingly the comedy is great throughout this tale, with Amy silently screaming in delight when van Gogh first appears, the ludicrous tussle with an invisible monster and, the bit that made me laugh hardest, the Doctor’s tiny “Oo!” when Vincent tells him the giant space chicken seems to “rather enjoy” being sonic-ed.
Back to Curtis in interview: “I also hoped that my episode would be educational in some way – van Gogh is an interesting man, with such great art, that if one of the corollaries is that people at school say, ‘Let’s do van Gogh today,’ then I think the episode has benefitted children in a small way.”
The bit where the Doctor, Amy and Vincent all lie on the hillside and hold hands worried me. Here come the schmaltz, I thought. Instead, what we got was one of the most wonderful sequences the series has produced, as the starry night above morphed beautifully into The Starry Night (June 1889). Art appreciation, here on screen, in a Doctor Who way – momentarily deconstructing just why van Gogh was so brilliant.
I think Curtis’ hopes will bear fruit, and for some viewers, his story has revealed a new joy that won’t fade fast.