Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert by Richard MarsonBookmark and Share

Friday, 27 March 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Written by Richard Marson
Published by Miwk Publishing
Available April 8th 2015 in paperback and deluxe hardback editions  

Considering Verity Lambert's legendary status in broadcasting history, it's surprising that it's taken this long for a book about her to emerge. An iconic figure in Television - forever known as the smart, beautiful, stylish young woman who cut a swathe through the stuffy cloisters of the BBC as a neophyte producer with a little show called Doctor Who.

Verity's pioneering work on Doctor Who's formative years needs very little introduction. It's already well-documented elsewhere, and was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career. We've seen a glimpse of this part of her story in An Adventure in Space and Time, but right from the off, Richard Marson's excellent biography is keen to point out that the 'soft' Verity as portrayed by Jessica Raine in Mark Gatiss's drama was far from the whole picture. Indeed, friends and colleagues don't remember her for the doe eyes and Roedean vowels familiar to Who fans from archive footage - her 'public' face. They recall a passionate, expansive, driven woman - just as prone to epic dinner parties as she was to thunderous meltdowns. She liked a drink, she smoked heavily, and loved men. She lived well, and lived life to the full. 

 

Marson paints a compelling picture of Verity's life and career, shaped as much by friendships and lovers as by career decisions. Her passionate, but doomed relationship with brilliant director Ted Kotcheff leads her indirectly to work with her mentor, Sydney Newman at ATV, before he sends for her at the BBC to help deliver the problem child of a children's drama he's been helping develop. She puts up with the bitchy whispers about how she got the job, and kicks back against the pipe-smoking boy's club at the workplace to forge a strong reputation. Marson addresses the rumours about Sydney and Verity, and her friends and colleagues chip in with their thoughts - but the jury remains out whether the whispers were right.

 

After Who, Verity's fortunes vary at first, and Newman makes her unhappily take up production reins on a new soap opera before allowing her to work on her preferred project - Adam Adamant Lives!, which turns out to be a fairly fraught experience for all concerned. Nonetheless, Verity sees out the rest of the decade continuing to move forward in adult drama in the party atmosphere of the glass-chinking late-sixties beeb. It's only in 1970 that the party briefly skids to a halt, as Verity's contract at the BBC abruptly ends after an overspend on the prestigious W.Somerset Maugham series.

 

Verity quickly regroups, and moves on to Thames TV and Euston Films, where her career flourishes - but inamongst successes like Budgie or Minder there are bitter feuds over Rumpole of the Bailey and a long, messy court case over Rock Follies. She raises eyebrows with her marriage to the much younger Colin Bucksey - now an acclaimed director of US shows such as Breaking Bad and Fargo

Her later years in charge of Cinema Verity and return to the BBC in the 90s have a slightly thinner hit rate as TV production becomes more diffuse, but not even the debacle of Eldorado could slow Verity down. Cancer first diagnosed and treated in the early 70s returns with a vengeance in her final years, but Verity worked to the end with dignity and courage. In spite of all the personal drama and tensions at the coalface of TV production, there's plenty of fun stories and you get the impression that Verity inspired as well as innovated. She wasn't just respected, but loved. Marson's book is a class act, it doesn't stint on the sometimes scathing nature of its subject - but it presents a balanced portrait of a brilliant, trailblazing figure in broadcasting, the like of which we may never see again. Drama and delight indeed.

 

 





Robert Holmes: A Life in WordsBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 6 November 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Robert Holmes: His Life in Words
Robert Holmes: A Life in Words
Written by Richard Molesworth
Released by Telos Publishing, October 2013

A book about Robert Holmes has two immediate attractions. The first is his reputation as the doyen of Doctor Who scriptwriters. The second is his comparative invisibility as a personality alongside fellow production personnel; extroverts like John Nathan-Turner aside, Doctor Who fans think they know the opinions of figures such as Terrance Dicks, Barry Letts or Christopher H. Bidmead, while Robert Holmes is lost somewhere beyond them, dissolving into a cloud of pipe smoke. This is remarkable because for many followers of the series in the 1970s and 1980s Robert Holmes was not just someone whose appearance on the credits one looked forward to, he was someone whose imagination you admired and envied, someone you secretly wanted to be.

Richard Molesworth is from that generation and his admiration for Robert Holmes is obvious before the scent of old tobacco arises from the long-locked ottoman in Holmes's study. He's largely writing to the converted, of course: most of his readers will need little persuading to wish themselves among the Lyons' Corner House lunch club of the last generation of weekly topical illustrated magazine journalists in the 1950s, alongside Holmes, Robert Banks Stewart, Wilfred Greatorex and other familiar names from the television drama series of the next two decades. Molesworth has a knack for the presentation of documentary material in a conversational style, and the reader is taken through the battle to receive a regular stream of television commissions with ease. The bravado which Holmes developed as work became easier to come by gives way in the 1980s to a harsher reality as the number of opportunities gradually contracts. Those who have read Richard Marson's JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner will not be surprised to find the mid-1980s emerge from Molesworth's text as a time when a feeling that they had been betrayed by one of their own haunted producers, editors and writers accustomed to convivial and creative meetings in the offices, bars and restaurants of Shepherds Bush.

The subtitle A Life in Words gives away that this book isn't really a biography. Much standard information is missing. There is little comment on Holmes's parents and upbringing, and nothing about his schooling. The influence of his wartime experiences in the Far East on his writing isn't considered as thoroughly as it might be, given the preoccupations evident in some of his best-remembered work. While the milieu of those who worked on the dying illustrated magazines is fairly well-sketched, we have no sense of how Robert Holmes edited John Bull, which had been one of the most infamous but financially successful titles of the early twentieth century under its first editor, the swindler and Liberal MP Horatio Bottomley, and which in the late 1950s - Holmes's era - maintained a lively contemporary-dramatic visual style combining the kitchen-sink domestic with the incongruous and dangerous. The advance of cirrohsis of the liver passes without the chance being taken to look at the alcohol-laden work culture of the 1960s and 1970s and how far Holmes participated in it, however keen he was to get back from London to his cottage in Leighton Buzzard. There are occasional slips which would have surely been caught by an informed proofreader, such as the reference to a writer called 'Alan Owens' when presumably Alun Owen is meant, and as with many non-fiction books from small publishers one regrets the absence of an index.

Some of the weaknesses of the book might arise from Molesworth's evident admiration for Holmes, but that of course brings strengths. These include the 'Interludes' in which Molesworth breaks his narrative of Holmes's career with scene breakdowns and story outlines from Holmes's various projects, some, but not all, being early versions of his Doctor Who episodes. Pedants who for long years have insisted on calling the last two episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord 'Time Inc.' may be taken aback to find that by the time of Holmes's death this provisional title had been overtaken by another more suited to the episodes' content and satirical target. The transcript of the 'script conference' enacted for the benefit of the makers of Whose Doctor Who confirms the hitherto unfashionable reading that a specific script is actually being discussed. Other revelations about Holmes's time on Doctor Who are thrown in without comment, some frustratingly unsourced so it's unclear whether one is reading something for which there is documentary proof or an authorial inference from unidentified evidence. There's some consideration of how corporate and personality politics affected the direction of Doctor Who in 1977 as Holmes left, though one wonders whether Chris Boucher would have flourished as script editor of Doctor Who in the way he seems to have at Blake's 7. The most intriguing possibilities the book offers are those of Holmes's unfinished projects. If Northcliffe (or The Chief), the historical biodrama he was to write under the producership of Louis Marks, had reached fruition, Holmes might have been respected by a wider circle, though as this book shows television writing could be a fickle business even in a supposed past golden age.

Robert Holmes: A Life in Words may leave one with more questions than answers about this fondly-remembered storyteller, but the quantity of information it gathers into one place earns it a place on the Doctor Who fan bookshelf, as does the warmth with which Holmes is remembered by colleagues quoted in the book, whether specially interviewed by Molesworth - such as Robert Banks Stewart - or gathered from earlier publications and documentaries. It's an admiring and competent read which could have benefited from better editing and the overcoming of some production flaws - such as the incomplete table of Holmes's works - which it's hoped will be achieved at a later printing. Molesworth takes us into the pipe smoke, and while he doesn't clear it, the man within can be seen more clearly than he was before.




The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-TurnerBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 9 April 2013 - Reviewed by Anthony Weight

The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner
Written by Richard Marson
Published by Miwk Publishing
Released April 2013
When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, for a while I had an after-school paper round, delivering copies of the Brighton-based Evening Argus around my village in Sussex. It was never a paper of choice in our family, but while I had the round we used to buy a copy, which I would often peruse after I’d finished delivering the others.

I can distinctly remember noticing the features by John Nathan-Turner, an instantly recognisable name to any Doctor Who fan. He was a familiar figure from documentaries such as More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS, and I’d read his memoirs serialised in DWM not long before. With a name like that it couldn’t be anybody else, and he even had his own byline photo to confirm it.

His features in the Argus were interviews with minor local celebrities, usually actors. I don’t remember how many of them he did – Richard Franklin is the only one that I specifically recall – but I do very clearly remember thinking, and even saying to my dad, “That’s a bit sad, he used to produce Doctor Who – how come he’s ended up writing cheap showbiz features for a local paper?”

As JNT: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner reveals, the whole of Nathan-Turner’s post-Doctor Who career, which has perhaps been something of a mystery to fandom, could be described as being “a bit sad”. His name had become mud at the BBC, and despite a series of increasingly desperate and bizarre pitches, he was never able to persuade any broadcaster to work with him again, or to take up any of his programme ideas.

Richard Marson has done excellent work with this book, delving into the life and career of a man who seems utterly familiar on the one hand to Doctor Who fans, but who really it seems we only ever knew a certain side of, in a certain way. It’s the tragedy of many who are associated with Doctor Who that they are remembered only by us, and only for their Doctor Who careers – but Nathan-Turner’s association with the show became a burden even while it was ongoing.

Marson, a former producer and then editor of Blue Peter, himself points out the parallels between himself and his subject – both producers of long-standing, iconic BBC television series, who ended up having somewhat bitter partings from the programmes they had loved. But just because Marson has some empathy for Nathan-Turner, don’t make the mistake of thinking this book ever strays into the territory of being a hagiography – indeed, as you may have noticed from some of the press attention it has garnered, it’s anything but.

The fact that Marson is unafraid to tackle head-on some of the less pleasant aspects of Nathan-Turner’s character – and, to a greater extent, those of his partner Gary Downie – caused argument and debate in fandom in the weeks before the book was even released. There are some who are appalled by the revelations in the book. Some who are appalled that accusations have been made against men who are no longer alive and unable to defend themselves. Some simply embarrassed that Doctor Who has become associated with such squalor in its anniversary year, and particularly in the wake of the wider scandals that have engulfed the BBC in recent months.

It’s true that this book would almost certainly not have been written, at least not in this way, while Nathan-Turner and Downie were still alive. But that’s probably true of almost any honest biography, and time and distance can help to lend a vital objectivity. While it’s also true that the book contains details some Doctor Who fans may find unpleasant reading, in the same way that the book is not a hagiography, it’s never a hatchet job either. Marson is scrupulous in reproducing as many points of view and versions of events as possible, putting quotes from various interviewees one after the other to offer all the different sides of an argument, or versions of events.

The reader is left to make up his or her own mind about Nathan-Turner. Myself, I was chiefly left with the impression of a man I personally wouldn’t have ever wanted to know, but at the same time also a man rather sadly crushed by circumstances, and by a changing world at the BBC.

‘The BBC’ – dangerous as it always is to regard it as a single-minded monolith – almost comes across as a personality and a character in its own right in the narrative, and how interesting you find the book may depend on how much of an interest you have in the internal workings of the drama department, in the days of multi-camera videotape drama being made at Television Centre. I personally find such things fascinating, and it’s a real treat to get an insight into the labyrinthine workings of the Corporation and its drama department in the 1970s and 80s. It’s fair to say, however, that others may find such things less involving, and if you’re not really enthused by the structures and workings of the BBC drama department then this is possibly not the book for you.

Doctor Who fans generally, however, do tend to be interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of the show they love, perhaps more so than fans of any other television series. It’s why Doctor Who is quite possibly the most well-documented television programme ever made and why, as Russell T Davies once pointed out, in generations to come it will be the case study for how British television drama was made.

You sometimes have to remind yourself when reading this book that the fans do actually love the show, however. There are times when fandom comes across as being utterly repulsive and full of unpleasant people. I realise this isn’t entirely representative of how fandom was in the 1980s any more than the worst bitchers and moaners of Gallifrey Base or Roobarb's Forum represent it now, but I have to say I am rather glad I wasn’t old enough to be anywhere near fandom at the time. We perhaps don’t always appreciate how lucky we are in the 21st century, when fandom is so much larger, and online. If there’s a particular website or group of people you can’t get on with, you can easily find another place to share your love of the show, with people and things that make you laugh. No longer do you simply have to put up with whoever happens to attend your local group meeting.

Doctor Who and fandom recovered from the – at times – dark days portrayed in this book. But the shame of it is that Nathan-Turner never got the chance to. But on the other hand, I think he would have been pleased that he’ll be remembered, and that’s where the curse of Doctor Who is at least paying him something back. Jonathan Powell – refreshingly honest as an interviewee here – may well have been a far superior drama producer to Nathan-Turner, with a track record the latter couldn’t hope to match. He’s produced several BAFTA-winning productions of high quality. But he’ll never have a biography written about him. Nobody will ever research his life in detail, track down and speak to his teachers and schoolfriends. Trace the progress of his career in television, from the studio floor to the producer’s chair. When he dies, it will be little-noted outside of his friends and family.

Doctor Who can destroy careers. But Doctor Who fans remember. And because Doctor Who fans tend to be creative and industrious, we end up with superb books like this one. It’s not always an easy read, but I would recommend The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner to anyone with even a casual interest in television history in general, and Doctor Who’s history in particular.




Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented The Daleks (Book)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 17 May 2011 - Reviewed by Darren Allen

Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented The Daleks
The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation
Alwyn W Turner
Aurum Press (Book)
RRP £20.00
To be clear from the outset; this is not strictly a biography of Terry Nation. Whilst it does examine his life to a large degree and contain a fair amount of biographical detail, it is more of an examination of his work in context of the times, both social and political. And whilst the book’s approach is not always linear and often groups together Nation’s work for better comparison, in doing so it takes an honest and objective approach to the subject.

Unlike the previous book on Terry Nation, Bignell and O’Day’s very disappointing Terry Nation (Manchester University Press 2004), this admirable tome covers the whole spectrum of Nation’s work, across the media on TV, Radio, film and his two novels, rather than just his three main SF creations. So we travel from his tentative early radio work to his final few pieces for American television. Obviously there is much coverage of Nation’s SF work and in particular the Daleks. Not surprising, given the importance of their creation and reappearances in Nation’s life, but the book also gives a detailed examination of his work on ITC series (The Saint, The Champions, The Persuaders and the like) and the final series of the original The Avengers.

As I mentioned earlier, the book is not a detailed biography of Terry Nation. At times it is rather brief on some personal details. His wedding to Kate and the birth of his son Joel are only mentioned in passing. Whilst the birth of his daughter, Rebecca, is not mentioned at all! In fact you would only know that he had a daughter, because of the book that he wrote for her: Rebecca’s World. But Turner is accurate in his belief that it is one of Nation’s best pieces of work.

It was good to read the details behind Nation’s 1972 Drama Playhouse episode The Incredible Robert Baldick. A programme that I have always viewed as ‘the one that got away’, as it had series potential, and it is good to see that Turner agrees. The format of a gentleman adventurer travelling Victorian England, investigating the supernatural was sadly ahead of its time and is ripe for rediscovery.

Whilst Turner is correct in championing Nation’s legacy and that his three big creations (Daleks, Survivors, Blake’s 7) all enjoyed a renaissance after his death, he is a little anti the new Survivors, which is odd given what producer Terence Dudley did to the original series after Nation’s departure. His assertion that in the second series of the remake “there was little left resembling Nation’s original work” is rather sweeping. I personnally felt that the second series was more coherent as a whole and that it did contain some Nationesque themes. Particularly, the fourth episode wherein Tom and Greg are put to work in a mine by feudal overlord Henry Smithson (Christopher Fulford); a scenario that would have fitted in with Nation’s original first series perfectly.

As Turner observes, the great tragedy of Nation’s life is that having moved to America in 1980, he was to spend the last seventeen years of his life caught up in the studio system and sadly only notch up four writing credits.

In such a work, there are always likely to be a couple of mistakes or omissions. Such as in the précis of Nation’s second series Blake’s 7 episode Countdown, where he has Blake, rather than Del Grant defusing the bomb with Avon.

Also, in covering Nation’s desire that the Daleks did not become figures of fun (goodness knows what he would have made of his agent’s u-turn since 2005), Turner details the one exception to this: The ‘Pakistani Daleks’ sketch in Spike’s 1975 Q6 series. Although he is correct that Nation allowed it as a favour to Milligan, he somewhat surprisingly omits mention of the fact that Milligan was initially turned down by Nation’s agent and it was only when Milligan personally wrote to Nation (and reminded him of how he had helped the younger, struggling Nation) that the sketch went ahead. This is a very surprising omission given the sheer amount of research that Turner has done and the information on Nation’s work that he does include.

As these are the few examples of what is wrong with the book, they certainly do not detract from what is one of the best books concerned both with Doctor Who, and British television in general, published for many years.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone either with an interest in Terry Nation or television production from 1960 to 1980. And although you might not always agree with Turner’s comments, they are strongly put. One final thought: In nearly 300 pages of text (plus a thorough list of Nation’s writing credits), there is not one mention of Terry Nation’s predilection with the name Tarrant. Refreshing!