The Witchfinders is the latest in Doctor Who’s strand of thoroughly modern historicals. Blogtor Who profiles the career of Joy Wilkinson, the writer who’s brought it to life.
The Witchfinders marks only the second time in Doctor Who’s long history that women have both written and directed a story (the first being the three episodes of 1983’s Enlightenment). That amazes less due to the achievement, but more due to the fact that it shouldn’t have taken thirty-five years. The writer who, alongside director Sallie Aprahamian, has made this finally happen is Joy Wilkinson. But what can her career so far tell us about her approach to The Witchfinders?
Wilkinson was born in Burnley in Lancashire, continuing the strong Northern element to this year’s creative team. Even as a child she wrote plays but initially worked as a journalist after graduating with an BA in journalism. However she continued to write and won the Verity Bargate Award for her first manuscript as a playwright. She joined the BBC Writers’ Academy for developing new talent and, after a few attempts, was accepted as a regular contributor to daytime soap Doctors.
Ultimately, she wrote thirty-six episodes of Doctors, beginning with 2006’s Like Father. The dichotomies of the Doctors format worked well with Wilkinson’s own instincts. Doctors seemingly sets a leisurely pace, yet builds and tears down characters and their worlds in half an hour. And it often deals with serious issues like suicide or abuse in an uncompromised, but strangely gentlest way. And those instincts were carried though into her more individualistic work.
With The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby, Wilkinson updated not just the Dickens’ setting but his social concerns
In 2012, Wilkinson wrote a new Dickens adaptation – The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby. Wilkinson was well placed to take the essence of Dickens’ classic novel and transplant it, having previously written short stories and novels simply to better understand the process of taking them apart and putting them back together again. Wilkinson reimagined Nick as a modern young man. One forced by circumstance to take up work in his sinister uncle’s string of care homes for the elderly. There, Nick discovers the abuses of the vulnerable clients by the despicable Wackford Squeers and fights to protect his underage sister Kat from a predatory groomer. Wilkinson’s Nick Nickleby skillfully manages to not just update the Victorian book to a modern setting. It also succeeds in updating Dickens’ concerns into just the ones he’d have had today.
The Sweet Science of Bruising and the world’s first female doctor
Wilkinson has also used her fascination with Victoriana, and ability to reflect the 21st century in it, to great effect in her stage work. This year her play The Sweet Science of Bruising had a successful run at the Southwark Playhouse. In it, Wilkinson explored the setting of the world of underground women’s boxing in mid 19th century London. Appropriately enough, Sweet Science of Bruising’s Violet is a woman burning to be England’s first female (medical) doctor.
Earlier work Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant, at the Unicorn, was set in the early 20th century but shares the same rebellion against traditional gender roles. Sergeant tells the true story of stage star and famous male impersonator Vesta Tilley. But even as it delights in Tilley’s blurring of gender lines, it’s also unafraid to question Tilley’s act. During the Great War, her shows depicted all the jolly good fun of the trenches. She lured hundreds of young men into signing up (sometimes on stage), earning her the nickname of the play’s title.
The Witchfinders is poised to take its place among this series’ great historicals
On being added to the Series 11 writing team, Wilkinson has said she was ‘pinching herself’, quite aware of how difficult a job Doctor Who can be to get. A long time lover of the show, she’s described Doctor Who as a good fit for her style and ideas. It’s not hard to see why. The motives for King James I’s enthusiasm for the hunting down and murder of women accused of witchcraft are arguable. In some interpretations it seems to have been for nothing more worthy than following a fad he’d observed in Europe. In others it’s a consequence of his astonishing physical cowardice and desire to feel safe and in control.
But there can be no doubt that his witch hunts primarily targeted women who dared to take a leadership or wise elder role in their communities and made them figures of suspicion across Scotland and, to a lesser extent, England. Wilkinson is ideal to cover its subject matter of the shadows of the past, and the women who lived in them.
This season’s undisputed high points have been the historicals. They’ve told stories both personal, universal, and important. And Joy Wilkinson’s previous work shows every indication that The Witchfinders can sit with pride alongside Malorie Blackman’s Rosa and Vinay Patel’s Demons of the Punjab.
The Doctor Who adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 6.30pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson. For further broadcast times in your region, check local listings. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
The Witchfinders guest stars Alan Cumming (King James I) and Siobhan Finneran (Becka Savage) and is directed by Sallie Aprahamian.
The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th-century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land?