Witnessing Jo Grant’s return

SFX went to Cardiff on Monday, to attend a read-through of the Sarah Jane Adventures story that features the return of Jo Grant. Our intrepid reporter was there

Some volcanic ash, yesterday.

You probably won’t agree if you’ve just driven back from Kuala Lumpur, but living under a massive cloud of ash has been kinda fun. Until Monday, that is, when that rumbling volcano put a spanner in your SFX hack’s afternoon.

What catastrophe befell me? I didn’t get to meet Matt Smith. Iceland – outside, now! We were hoping he’d be at the Beeb’s Upper Boat studios for a read-through of the Sarah Jane Adventures script by Russell T Davies which reunites the Doctor with much-loved ‘70s companion Jo Grant. And then he got stuck in America. Although admittedly, even if the skies had been clear, we suspect Matt might have decided he had better things to do.

Journalists don’t usually get to attend script read-throughs – usually, we’re on set as the programme is being filmed. That might sound more exciting, but it does involve an awful lot of standing around trying not to look like a spare lemon. So sitting watching while a bunch of actors perform a story in front of you like they’re your private dancers (dancers for money) definitely has its appeal – even in the anonymous environs of a featureless meeting room. Especially when there’s plenty of tea to be had (is it a coincidence that the plastic cups bore the logo of a company called Flavia? Y’know, like Chancellor Flavia from “The Five Doctors”? Okay, probably) And free croissants. And jam tarts.

What happened when the Time Lord Chancellor moved into hot beverages.

Speaking of jammy tarts (only joking), the charisma vacuum left by Matt Smith’s absence was effortlessly filled by Katy Manning, the live-wire actress who used to play Jo. When Lis Sladen and Katy hugged at the start of the read-through, it fair brought a lump to the throat. The same happened when they hugged again, at the end. Although come to think of it, that may have been a bit of croissant that lodged in my oesophagus due to trying to gulp down the free food too fast. Look, I pay my licence fee – I was determined to get my money’s worth.

“Enough waffling!” I hear you cry. “Tell us every last, tiny detail of the plot!” Well, I could, but the BBC would probably despatch one of those new Daleks to squish me to death with its hump. However, I can be tantalisingly/irritatingly vague.

It’s a very moving script, at times – come transmission, you may need to have a hanky handy. It’s got an absolute cracker of an opening teaser. And it’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with in-jokes and little nods for the fans. There’s some clever riffing on the themes of “School Reunion”, and there are nods to everything from “The Green Death” to “Timelash”. No, scratch that – from the Hartnell era right up to “The End Of Time, Part Two”, and countless points in-between.

How does Russell T Davies write the 11th Doctor? Well, the funny thing is, when it’s read out by someone who’s filling in, Doctor dialogue just sounds like… Doctor dialogue. Not Tenth Doctor dialogue, or Eleventh Doctor dialogue. It’s the actor who makes the difference. Probably the best bit of business Matt gets is a sparky bit of banter with Jo, which caused Katy Manning to splutter an unscripted, “Does he want a slap?!” in mock indignation.

As for Jo? Well she’s everything you might expect – the dizzy blonde of the Pertwee years grown up, but most definitely not grown old. Davies nails the character the moment she walks through the door – clumsy, babbling, sweet-natured. It’s really good to have her back, and the interaction between the two women is a treat.

But my favourite bit of the whole story was a cheeky exchange between Clyde and the Doctor, which puts the lid on a couple of fanboy debates that have been raging for decades in the space of a couple of lines – that is, if you take what the Doctor says seriously. The thought that one of these lines could soon be “officially canon” is extremely amusing…

To conclude: here’s a smattering of images of things referenced in the script. I’ll leave you to idly speculate as to why on Earth they could possibly pop up…

Psst: and don’t forget to read our interview with Katy Manning.