TV Shows of my Life by Steven Moffat

Steven Moffat (MA 1983) originally dreamed of being a writer and producer for theatre. His allegiance transferred to television partly because it pays better. “I got my first cheque for 'Press Gang' at the same time as I got a cheque for a reading of my play 'War Games' at the Tron Theatre. I looked at the difference between the cheques and thought, okay, I see where this is going.” Now, he is best known for his work as showrunner, writer and executive producer of TV programmes 'Doctor Who' (2005−17) and 'Sherlock'. Here, he tells us about the TV shows of his life.

The TV show that makes me laugh the most
A lot of Ricky Gervais’ stuff makes me laugh unreasonably and any of the Alan Partridge shows I think are godlike. But 'Fawlty Towers' is at the head of the line. I remember laughing at it until I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe in. It’s aged from the point of view that it looks a bit shoddy and those look like sets, but oh my God, the comedy is brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

The TV show I rewatch time and time again
'The Office' because I think it is a master work. Not in a million years could I ever do anything like that. Something being funny not because it’s funny but because it is acute and true is an amazing thing. I remember my seething childish resentment when these two fellows (the writers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant) came out of nowhere and just showed the rest of us what comedy is. I was splenetic with fury. I’ve since recanted from my competitive idiocy and now I just say, how can you be that good?

The TV show that gets me through the hard times
'Cheers' always cheers me up. It’s sometimes hilarious, often simply quite funny, but it’s always adorable. I believe in those characters and I want to be with them and tell them my stories. The theme song invites you in, it’s a tremendous statement of what the show’s going to be. The episodes would not necessarily be wildly different from each other – how many jokes did Norm do, just coming through that door? But you like it every time. I know a couple of the writers – Phoef Sutton and Ken Levine. Brilliant guys.

A TV show that changed my mind
I grew up with and have retained a deep loathing of Margaret Thatcher. I couldn’t stand her voice, I couldn’t stand what she stood for, anything. But I did watch the BBC documentary 'Thatcher: A Very British Revolution' and for the first time, I get it. I don’t necessarily approve of it all, but I get why it’s not all wrong. So, that changed my mind a bit. I still find I shrink in revulsion if I hear her voice, but she was smart and she was right about a number of things, even if she wasn’t always very pleasant. I wouldn’t exactly vote for her, but, at long last, I understand why other people would. Damn you, BBC.

The TV show I wish I’d written
I think in common with everybody, I wish I’d written the Aaron Sorkin years of 'The West Wing'. It’s brilliantly written, in that it has the depth and sincerity of the grandest drama but is by any estimate actually a comedy. You laugh all the time when you’re watching it but you go away thinking, what a fine drama series. Comedy or a joke is just insight at speed, so a really well-written drama will often make you laugh.

The TV show that’s my guilty pleasure
When you’re a 'Doctor Who' fan, there’s no guilt in anything. That’s the guiltiest pleasure you can have. I’m perfectly happy watching the shows that posh people are not supposed to like. I loved the heyday of 'The X Factor', I thought that was brilliant. Bafflingly, my wife Sue got me watching 'MasterChef', which I’d always disdained because I thought, we can’t taste the food, what’s the point? Now I’m sitting there watching and saying, oh, that looks good, even if it’s full of vegetables, and I don’t like those. I’ve got an immense amount of respect for that kind of reality television.

The TV show I’m currently watching
I’ve just discovered an American show which has been around for a while called 'This Is Us'. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally like. It’s quite soapy and warm-hearted but it’s rather beautifully written. When things are beautifully written, they’re often a bit dark and grim and have a tremendously misanthropic view of human nature, but this one is positive, kind and yet very insightful. It’s got a tiny “why me?” element which appeals to me.

The TV shows getting me through lockdown
I rewatched 'The West Wing', which was great, just to see it again. David and Georgia Tennant made a show with Michael Sheen called 'Staged'. That was really good. I thought it was fun because life’s now all on Zoom. I also thought David Tennant gave us a great turn as Dennis Nilsen in 'Des'. Such a great turn I’m not sure I enjoyed it, especially as I know David quite well and I just don’t want to see him again.

Steven is currently writing 'Inside Man', a four-part thriller for the BBC, and is adapting 'The Time Traveler’s Wife' for HBO. Both are due to start filming this year. His comedy play 'The Unfriend' opened in Chichester last year and will return to the stage when theatres reopen.

This article was first published in January 2021.