Did the CBC really want to redub Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor?
With the upcoming release of The Green Death on DVD, a number of people are taking notice of something Russell T Davies noted on the “Doctor Forever!” DVD feature. Namely, that the CBC wanted to dub Christopher Eccleston’s voice for Canadian audiences. Davies said on the feature “You’re not doing that to our lead actor!”
On the surface it sounds bizarre, CBC is home to Coronation Street a show with lots of Mancunian accents. Why on earth would Doctor Who need to be cleaned up?
Well, it turns out that a CBC Executive did have that idea. Richard Stursberg was CBC Executive Vice President from 2004 to 2010. Stursberg was to run the English television service. He documented his time with the Corporation in his book Tower of Babble, The: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC And in it he writes about what he wanted to do with Doctor Who. :
The BBC had decided to remake [Doctor Who] and wanted to know if we wanted to buy it. I was doubtful. British shows never do well in Canada. In many cases, the accents are impenetrable, and rather than soldiering on, Canadians simply change the channel. If we were to buy it, we had to find a way to make it more accessible to Canadians.
We met the BBC people at the Spoke Club in Toronto, a hangout for people in the entertainment business. Hilary Read, the head of the BBC in Canada, was there, along with the top person in drama from London and some others.
I would presume that the “top person in drama” was probably either Jane Tranter or Julie Gardner. Both were, I seem to recall, making trips to Toronto to pitch shows to CBC at the time.
As Mike Doran points out to me, the co-production deal was formally announced in October 2004, with the new series four months into production. Stursberg started at the CBC in July 2004. Stursberg hit the ground running if he was actually privy to conversations selling the show, as usually these discussions took place 6-8 months before an announcement.
Over dinner, they explained what the new Doctor Who would be like. We listened politely. After they were done, I suggested they make two versions: one for Britain and one for North America. In the North American version, we would make the Doctor a Canadian and re-voice him with a Canadian accent. That would make the series that much more accessible, since it would involve fewer incomprehensible British accents and a lead character Canadians could feel kinship with.
The plummy woman from London made a strangled noise. “Re-voice the Doctor,” she croaked, “as a Canadian?”
“Yes. Why not?” I replied, “After all, he isn’t even English. He is alien. He has two hearts and three lungs.”
“Re-voice the Doctor, as a Canadian” she gargled again.
“Sure. And it would be seamless. it’s already made in English, so there wouldn’t be any lip-synching problems. We could have the same actor do it.”
“Re-voice the Doctor?” She sounded weak, like she might pass out. “He is an iconic British figure.”
“Why not?” I persisted. “We’ll do it for the Canadian version and if it works here, it’ll be easier to sell in the United States. And, not to be unfair, but you’ve never had a hit in the States.”
The conversation deteriorated. The BBC people politely drew the evening to an early close. We paid the bill and left.
I honestly don’t know if Stursberg seriously pursued this idea within the CBC. Certainly no one at the CBC I talked to in 2005 (mostly people working on promoting the show and its web content, who were communicating with upper echelons) knew anything about it. I frankly wonder if Slawko Klymkiw, the head of the CBC who pushed for the show to come to Canada, even knew of Stursberg’s idea.
I suspect it was just a pitch Stursberg made with Hilary Read and Gardner/Tranter at the Spoke Club but it was taken back to Britain as “Canada wants to re-voice the Doctor”. But who knows, maybe he did try to push the matter further.
There’s so much in Stursberg’s narrative that makes him look like a total idiot… and not just the frankly boneheaded idea of redubbing Christopher Eccleston. These include:
The fact that during spring of 2005, Doctor Who was the most popular show on CBC television during the NHL lockout, debuting at over 900,000 viewers, a gigantic number for a non-US drama (it was also treble the ratings of the show previously in the timeslot!)
The fact that during the fall of 2006, series two of Doctor Who did far, far better in the ratings without any promotion than many of the domestic CBC dramas Stursberg no doubt championed.
The fact that a year or two later, one of the most popular CBC dramas was The Tudors, with you know, impenetrable British accents
The fact that Doctor Who actually turned out to be the first breakout hit for BBC America.
Reading Stursberg’s narrative it also becomes quite clear why it was that after Slawko Klymkiw left the CBC (to be replaced by Stursberg’s pal, Kristie Layfield)the CBC had zero interest in Doctor Who and never promoted it and never scheduled it properly. Stursberg was disdainful of the property to begin with.
Thanks to Victor Wong for pointing this out (and reminding me I owned Stursberg’s book but hadn’t read it yet!)
Posted by Graeme on Monday, August 12 at 2:27 pm