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Moffat, Steven (1961-)

Writer, Producer

Main image of Moffat, Steven (1961-)

Steven Moffat's work can veer between high farce and deep introspection, often in successive lines of the same script. But his trademark is his meticulous and enterprising use of structure (for example, parallel story strands and experiments with chronology or repetition) to confound audiences. Never knowingly modest, Moffat unassumingly summed up this ability: "There are just basic rules how plotting should work and how you can make events seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the challenge of all writing." This capacity for delight and surprise was evident in Moffat's very first TV work Press Gang (ITV, 1989-93).

Born 18 November 1961 in Paisley, Scotland, Moffat began writing theatre plays in the mid-80s while teaching, but his break came when a TV crew from religious travelogue Highway (ITV, 1983-93) visited his father's own school. Moffat Senior told the crew of his idea for a children's series based around a junior newspaper, which could be written by his son.

Mixing acid one-liners and serious teenage issues, Press Gang deservedly won BAFTA and RTS awards. Audiences were frequently wrongfooted: one episode opened with the apparent funeral of a member of the paper's team, before slowly teasing out the victim's identity. But Moffat was politely fired from comedy drama Stay Lucky (ITV, 1989-93) for failing to write for established characters, and he has stuck largely with sole-authored pieces ever since.

Press Gang director Bob Spiers suggested he try sitcom, and in 1990 Moffat's then current divorce provided source material for the pilot of BBC2 black comedy Joking Apart (1993-95), which combined hyper-plotted farce and painful emotional honesty. But Moffat's first high-profile BBC1 series, school-set sitcom Chalk (1997), seemed a step back. Most critics overlooked Nicola Walker's interesting portrayal of a student teacher and focused on lead actor David Bamber's pantomime playing.

In 1997, he married TV producer Sue Vertue, and since 1999 much of his work has been produced by Hartswood Films, the independent production company run by his wife and her mother, veteran TV executive Beryl Vertue. It was Hartswood's elaborate sex comedy Coupling (BBC2, 2000-04) which established Moffat as a major talent. Conceived as a more cynical, adult antidote to the sentimental Friends (US, 1994-2004), Coupling roamed the battlefields of the sex wars, distinguishing itself with its sophisticated plotting and supremely filthy wit. Moffat admitted the male characters were based on aspects of himself: a considerate would-be new man, a selfish womaniser, a hapless bumbler and a sci-fi geek. Plotting conceits included a split-screen episode and another repeating the same events three times from the perspectives of different characters. Short-lived remakes aired in Greece and the US.

A Doctor Who fan since the late '60s, Moffat had written spoof sketches for Comic Relief in 1999 (with Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor), which were lovingly observed, joyously crude and strangely moving. He was a key writer for the revived Doctor Who (BBC, 2005-), his standout six scripts for the first four series winning him the respect of legions of fans new and old, plus a BAFTA (for the tense 'Blink') and three Hugos - a respected US SF award rarely won by British TV shows. But his own violent, sexy mini-series reworking Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' rated poorly in a Saturday night bearpit timeslot. But Jekyll (BBC, 2007), starring James Nesbitt, is among his finest work, building in unexpected directions over six hours.

In mid-2009 he inherited the mantle of Doctor Who showrunner from Russell T. Davies, coinciding with the decision to replace the departing David Tennant with relative unknown Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. Such was the lure of the series' that Moffat relinquished writing duties on Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's projected film series The Adventures of Tintin (submitting just one script of the contracted three). Similarly, a Sherlock Holmes TV series was handed over to co-creator Mark Gatiss to produce.

Moffat looks set to instigate a stylistic overhaul for his time in charge of Doctor Who - the series thrives on change and his challenge is to reinvigorate a franchise now at the end of a massively successful cycle.

Alistair McGown

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Press Gang (1989-93)Press Gang (1989-93)

Children's series about the staff of the Junior Gazette newspaper

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

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