Empty Child Set ReportBookmark and Share

Sunday, 23 January 2005 - Reported by Shaun Lyon
The past two weeks have seen location photography for the story "The Empty Child" (and its second half, "The Doctor Dances"). Within the spoiler tag is a set report taken one week ago from location photography; click to read it. (Thanks to Timothy Farr/TIMELESS)
If you were walking down City Road in Cardiff towards the city centre at around 6.15pm on Friday, 14th January 2005, you would have found it difficult to ignore a large bright light shining out from behind some foliage near the church on Newport Road. The light is a powerful BBC scenic light mounted on a scaffolding tower. It shines through a diffusing grille into the forecourt of Cardiff Royal Infirmary opposite. Except that the CRI has had a makeover. An arched sign over the gates, apparently of cast iron, claims it as Albion Hospital. Behind the walls to either side of the gates are gunmetal coloured sheets of corrugated iron. Behind the gates, the low walls along the ramp to the curved double front doors have been surmounted with goldfish bowl gas lamps and reinforced with sandbags. All the windows have diagonal crosses of white tape and a large cloth banner hangs far above the doors covering much of the frontage. It bears the symbol of the red cross, used during the second world war to prevent aeroplanes from confusing hospitals with military targets. The powerful light casts the shadow of the large tree in the forecourt across this banner to eerie effect. Passers by gaze in confusion at this suddenly anachronistic transformation while twenty-first century cars drive past in ignorance.

Meanwhile, in front of the gates a complicated camera rig is being assembled. When it is ready, the camera hangs in a protected cradle from the end of a long black arm extended from vertical black mount to one side of the gates. Connected to this are the camera monitor and controls. The point of this rig is to give the camera a view of the area in front of the gates without the light across the road casting the camera's shadow into the gate area. A truck stops by the traffic island at the end of the road and two of the reflective waistcoated men who are keeping a watchful eye on events jump down from it. They begin to unload and set out traffic cones to narrow the road lanes. This will slow the movement of traffic, making the location safer and limiting the risk of vehicular shadows being cast across it. The traffic noise will not be a problem as no dialogue scenes are to be recorded tonight. The background noise will be dubbed over with a more appropriate soundtrack during editing.

There is a call for action and the camera rig moves smoothly towards and focuses in on the gates, where precisely nothing is happening. This is a camera rehearsal and when the crew are satisfied, there is a pause while a member of the cast is summoned from inside the hospital.

Soon the camera is repeating its earlier manoeuvre three times in succession and each time, on the monitor, Christopher Eccleston walks along the wall, turns to stride up to the locked gates and pauses to examine the padlocked chain securing them. There is a pause in filming while the next shot is prepared. Eccleston chats to some children and the adults standing with them by the gate, probably relatives of someone connected with the production. A beautiful young camera assistant holding a digital clapperboard asks some onlookers if they are Doctor Who fans. They are pleased to learn that the scenes being recorded tonight are for the two part Doctor Who story The Empty Child, due to be broadcast on BBC1 later in the year. She tells them what is going to be shot that evening and points out some of the scenic crew, who are affixing wooden signs painted with the words KEEP OUT - AREA RESTRICTED to the corrugated sheeting with a drill.

The camera assistant rejoins the crew as the next shot is ready. Now the focus is entirely on the gates. On the monitor, Eccleston walks into shot, pauses again before the padlock and reaches into a pocket to retrieve what looks like a futuristic pen torch. This he shines into the padlock, which comes apart in his hands and he unloops the chain from the gates. He then pushes open the gates and strides through them. A few more takes follow before the final part of this sequence is shot. These takes begin with Eccleston pushing open the gates then the camera tracks him through them, up the ramp to the doors and after trying the doors, Eccleston shines the pen light on their lock, opens them, steps through.

The watching fans are pleased with this as they believe the pen light to be a Sonic Screwdriver, a device used by previous Doctors which generates focused sound vibrations and can be used to loosen bolts or even ignite marsh gas. The crew also seem pleased. Hot drinks are being shared out and the camera rig reset. The fans see this as an opportunity to snatch a quick word with the latest actor cast as their hero but as they cross the road, one of the men in reflective waistcoats sends them back. Soon after, Eccleston has left the location but the camera crew is ready for another shot. The gates stand open. There is almost no traffic now and a concealed smoke machine creates a fog through the forecourt, lending the location an even more sinister aspect than before. The doors of the hospital swing open and a column of figures shamble out, moving at an unnaturally slow, even pace towards the open gates. They all wear primitive gas masks, shaped like badger snouts made of dull green canvas with glass covered eye holes and a round filter at the tip, leather straps buckled around the back of the head holding them in place. One of the two at the front is a thin figure wearing a white lab coat, the other is much thicker set, in black trousers, a white shirt and a maroon tank top. A few are dressed in period nurses' uniforms. Others are wearing 1940's overcoats or dressing gowns. These were presumably patients at Albion Hospital and are of all ages, the youngest being two twin girls in pigtails wearing red woollen overcoats who could be as young as nine and certainly not older than twelve.

This is a scene described earlier by the camera assistant as the sufferers of Empty Child Syndrome emerge. This walking nightmare takes on an even more surreal, dream-like quality when on reaching the gates, these extras suddenly break step, becoming more animated and removing the gas masks. The second take is even more impressive. The third ends with a laugh as an older woman in a magenta dressing gown turns in the act of removing the gas mask after the take and almost causes a passing member of the crew to fall to the ground. The extras re-enter the hospital and the camera rig is disassembled. The camera is repositioned across the road without the elaborate camera rig for the final shot of the evening. A few fans still remain on the site and are initially told that it will be acceptable for them stand to the left of the hospital but they are asked to move to the other side of the road, behind the camera. Possibly their shadows were unexpectedly in shot.

On the takes, the camera simply pans or tracks across the front of the hospital. This will be an establishing shot, showing the warning signs on the corrugated metal, some period fly posters flapping between them, the hospital name, the red cross banner and the taped across windows. On screen this will be a very brief shot conveying the austerity of wartime and the mystery of night. "That's a wrap!", calls a tall man in a red jacket.

A man in a yellow reflective jacket quietly expresses his relief at this. He explains to the fans that he has been there since 8.00am and by the end of a fourteen hour day, his enthusiasm is considerably diminished. A blonde production assistant hurries across and asks if any of the crew want a call sheet for the next recording. The camera assistant folds one up and tucks it into her back pocket before dismantling the camera and stacking it on a trolley. A fan offers to help but she politely refuses, as the camera crew tease her about it and call to her to "Leave those boys alone!".

Soon the camera crew have gone, but the fans linger a little longer. Crossing to the hospital again, they ask the BBC person left watching the site if they can take the period fly posters. After a momentary pause, he says yes. These are 12.5x9.5 inch (190x252mm) sheets, the text printed with a manilla coloured background simulating the look of paper that has been browned in the sun. The centred text in red on a typical example reads:

Please bring back your
empty cod liver oil
and orange tonic
bottles when you come
for a new supply

In a production as complex as Doctor Who, these fly posters are a detail so tiny that when the completed episode is broadcast, it will not even be possible to read their text. By ten'o'clock even the fans have left. It has been a good night. The production team is happy, the fans are happy and the latest Doctor Who adventure is in the can.
--Timothy Farr