Covering the period from 1997 to 2008, The Blue Peter Diaries offers a fascinating insight into the production processes of one of the BBC’s flagship programmes. At different times amusing, raw and poignant, as the book wears on it becomes clear just how fiercely devoted Richard Marson was to the show.
The candid nature of the entries makes for compelling reading. Which presenter could be something of a diva? And which were the best and least prepared? All will be revealed ….
When pouring through the diary entries, it becomes clear that there are several running themes. Marson’s disdain for the pop world is one (visitors to the studio such as S Club 7, Steps, Westlife, Sugababes and Britney Spears all receive less than glowing write-ups) whilst you also get a real sense of the way he had to fight his corner against BBC executives keen to downsize or marginalise the programme (especially during his final years as editor).
That Richard Marson was a staunch gatekeeper, resolute in his determination that BP should never be compromised or have to play to the lowest common denominator, may be why he was eventually eased out of his dream job. The various scandals that dogged his last year (the naming of the BP cat, the phone-in debacle) seem more like excuses than reasons.
But whilst there’s plenty of behind the scenes wrangling – not only from the execs but also from members of the production team less invested in the show than Marson himself (they tended not to last long) – it’s also interesting to have a ground-level view of the off-screen dynamics of the presenters.
Konnie Huq, Simon Thomas, Matt Baker and Liz Barker became something of a dream-team, easily able to stand alongside the classic line-ups of the past (such as Singleton, Noakes and Purves). But when that team began to break up, their replacements (Zoe Salmon, Gethin Jones) sometimes struggled to connect with the senior presenters (Matt had little time for Gethin or Zoe, Liz wasn’t particularly enamoured of Zoe). But none of the presenters suffer hatchet jobs in the text, and any occasional bad behaviour can often be explained away by having to work at such an intense level.
Having enjoyed his previous books (including a detailed history of Upstairs Downstairs and candid biographies of John Nathan-Turner and Verity Lambert) I’d always hoped that one day Richard Marson would write about his experiences on Blue Peter. That he’d kept such a detailed diary was an unexpected bonus, since it gives us an immediate and visceral lowdown on proceedings (had the whole book been written today, decades or more later, then it obviously would have been very different).
Running to 448 pages, this is an absolutely essential read and comes highly recommended. It can be ordered directly from Miwk here.
For many British Doctor Who fans, when considering America’s relationship with our favourite programme it’s the 1980’s which immediately springs to mind. That was the decade in which the show exploded in popularity across the US (in relative terms anyway) and whilst British fandom was beginning to turn on itself, becoming increasingly bitter and negative, in America there appeared to be only single-minded love for this newly discovered programme.
There was plenty of money too, as the stars of the programme quickly discovered. The leap from the fledgling and low-scale British convention circuit to the all-expenses paid, air-conditioned hotel experience of the American dream wasn’t lost on anybody. This helps to explain why just about anybody who was anybody in the Who world elected to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the programme at a massive American convention.
As Gary Russell explains in his brief, but amusing forward, this was one of the reasons why British fans regarded their American counterparts with jaundiced eyes. The fact that they also got The Five Doctors two days earlier than us simply rubbed salt into already bitter wounds. And then there’s the term Whovian ….
If you want to irritate an old-school British Doctor Who fan, just refer to them as a Whovian. It works every time. Coined by American fans back in the eighties, the new series has now brought this unlovely term back into common usage (something which continually irks me I have to admit, but then I’m an old-school British Doctor Who fan).
However, the story of Doctor Who in America began well before the 1980’s and continues right up to the current day, meaning that this mammoth book (704 pages, including 130 pages of appendixes) doesn’t leave any stones unturned in order to present us with the full picture.
I’ve had the chance to peruse several sample chapters from the book and what I’ve read has impressed me. For example, whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that Doctor Who debuted on American television in the early 1970’s (with a package of Jon Pertwee stories) I wasn’t aware that the first faint flickers of interest in the series had occurred long before that.
In the mid 1960’s these mainly consisted of newspaper reports which took an amused look back over the pond during the period when Britain was gripped by Dalekmania. For some American commentators there was plainly the fear that the Daleks might, following the Beatles, be the spearhead of another British invasion (something which filled certain writers with dread!) An enthusiastic, if somewhat inaccurate, article from Famous Monsters of Filmland from 1965 is another early example of Doctor Who reporting in the US (these early chapters feature a plethora of fascinating press clippings and promotional material – both for the Dalek movies and the early television sales – which adds considerable extra value to the insightful text).
Chapter Eight – Love and Monsters – covers the PSB pledge drives as well as demonstrating early examples of fan-power. This is another interesting topic for non-Americans – most of us have probably seen footage from various pledge drives over the years, but exactly how they worked (and the likelihood that money pledged for Doctor Who might not even go towards purchasing that series) was again another revelation. I also loved Gail Bennett’s remembrance of John Nathan-Turner. In the early eighties JN-T was, even in the UK, very much a fan’s producer, but it seems that he found greater acceptance in the US. The notion of JN-T “holding court” at a convention with a group of fans in a hot tub sounds typical of the man, for good or for ill.
Chapter Ten – Doctor Who in Bits – discusses the way that American fans took to the brave new world of the internet whilst Chapter Fourteen – Creativity: Trippingly on the Tongue – exhumes another half-forgotten relic from the history of American Who. John Ostrander’s stage-play The Inheritors of Time created a certain amount of interest in the mid eighties (not least for the fact that an American Doctor had been cast) but due to a lack of funds it was never mounted. Ostrander teases the reader with a few hints about what the play contained, although he remains tight-lipped about many of the details (even after all these years it appears he hasn’t given up hope of resurrecting it).
Towards the end of the book, Chapter Twenty – It Couldn’t Have Happened to a More Deserving Fellow – examines the way that the series, in the Matt Smith era, really began to find a foothold in the public consciousness. Which was a far cry from 2005, when American fans were frustrated that no broadcaster had picked up the Christopher Eccleston series.
Other chapters promise to cover Doctor Who’s first successful invasion, thanks to Tom Baker and Howard Da Silva (although possibly Da Silva’s help – via a series of narrations, designed to educate the American viewer about the series – was more of a hindrance). As might be expected, the fan experience – via conventions and creative works – also looks to be covered in depth.
The sample chapters suggests that Red, White and Who will be the last word on this topic. Although the list of authors – Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, Robert Warnock, Janine Fennick and John Lavalie – is a lengthy one, their voices seem to blend together seamlessly.
It’s available for pre-order here and whilst it isn’t cheap at $49.99, it does run to a hefty 704 pages and contains 600 images. So whilst it’s true that the cost may be a little off-putting for some, what I’ve seen of it so far indicates that it’s no cheap cash in. This looks to be something crafted with love and appreciation and should certainly be worth your consideration.
Who doesn’t love a television quiz? I certainly do and Ben Baker’s third television quiz-book, Remotely Interesting, manages to entertainingly deliver as even this grizzled television watcher discovered some interesting new nuggets of information (the original title for Goodness Gracious Me, for example).
There’s plenty of variety across the many different rounds. Eight Word TV Tango sees popular programmes boiled down to an eight word description (“Soft and septuagenarian soil-securers bumble for Britain”) whilst Points of Groo digs out letters sent to the Radio Times, TV Times and Look-In, challenging the reader to guess the programme under discussion. Sadly (or possibly impressively) I did well here, even though the actual letters were new to me. They all provided fascinating nuggets of social history (as Ben says, it takes a special type of person to write into a publication in order to proffer their opinion)
Belong in a Presidential Tweet is another entertaining section as Donald Trump (warning, Fake Trump) offers his own unique Twitter-styled take on popular programmes. Theme from a Hummer Place (challenging you to identity popular television themes from every fourth word is listed) is a simple, but ingenious, idea. “Don’t, beat, drum, right, not, some, born, of, come, nothing”. Hmm, I’ll come back to that one.
Another fruitful area for quizzing are the lists of ten facts on various topics (five true, five false) scattered throughout the book. How can you not love a book which asks you to ponder whether popular-ish Simpsons character Cletus (aka “the slack jawed yokel”) has children called Incest, Q*Bert and Stabbed In Jail?
Although I like to pride myself on my knowledge of television trivia, thanks to Remotely Interesting I now know many more useless factoids than I did before, which makes it a book that informs as well as entertains. With over fifty sections and a wide variety of questions, it certainly has something for everyone.
As Ben explains on his blog. “There’s rounds about robots, catchphrases, The Beatles on TV, theme tunes, live programmes, Netflix and the online revolution, game shows, spin-offs, remakes, famous mothers, kids shows, booze, radio transfers, foreigners, Great Telly Years (1969, 1990, 1982 and 1977) and a bunch of Christmas stuff for good measure! The suggested age range is anything from 18 to 65, and probably beyond! Its accessible but challenging where it needs to be with lots of speciality rounds for all the family”.
Remotely Interesting comes warmly recommended. Further information can be found here.
Originally published in 2012, Prophets of Doom by Michael Seely is an invaluable guide to Doomwatch. It contains new interviews with surviving cast and crew members as well as an episode by episode guide (with a wealth of production information and background detail on each story).
The book drifted out of print a while back, but the recent DVD release has prompted a reprint which should be ready by the end of May. It can be ordered directly from the publishers, Miwk, here.
Because Miwk are something of a niche publisher, their books don’t tend to have especially large print runs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this book go out of print again in the future. Therefore I’d recommend putting an order in sooner rather than later. Below is the book’s blurb –
In February 1970, one of the most important television drama programmes from the 1970s was broadcast on BBC1. Not only did it introduce a new word to the English language, it also brought to a mainstream audience of ten million viewers each week the new, emerging idea of the scientists’ moral and ethical responsibility in society. This was Doomwatch, a visionary science fiction series which took scientific research and technological advances and imagined where they could go disastrously wrong if greed, politics or simple ambition won over caution. This was drama with a message. And it was heard. The fears of the Sixties: over-population, test-tube babies, super-sonic aircraft, DDT, the Bomb, all found expression in Doomwatch.
Launching the career of actor Robert Powell, Doomwatch entertained and thrilled its audience with concepts such as a plastic eating virus, animal hearts transplanted into children, toxic chemical dumps, cannibal rats, the surveillance state, noise that can kill, food poisoned by drugs and chemicals, and by the end of its first successful series, the ultimate horror: a nuclear bomb washed up underneath a seaside pier, its countdown ticking down to claim the life of one of the celebrated Doomwatch team.
It was conceived by a research scientist and a television dramatist, Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, who had previously devised the Cybermen for Doctor Who. With Doomwatch, they soon became famous for creating seemingly prophetic storylines in which the media eagerly found parallels in real life. Were the writers of Doomwatch prophets of doom or simply scaremongering popularists?
The programme divided the scientific and political establishment into those who thought the programme was a much needed and timely warning and tried to do something about it, and those who thought it was a naive, reactionary piece of trivial, and ignorant television. Dr. Kit Pedler actively tried to create a real-life Doomwatch, and was at the beginnings of the alternative technology movement in Britain and did his own experiments on creating ecologically sound housing and develop a new way of living in a modern society without destroying the habitat or regressing back to the stone age.
With contributions from the family of Dr. Kit Pedler, Darrol Blake, Jean Trend, Glyn Edwards, Martin Worth, Adele Winston, Eric Hills, and others, this book will tell the proper story of Doomwatch both on and off the screen, how it was made, the true story behind the stories, the controversies, the back stage bust-ups, and how the programme inspired those who looked around the world in which they had been conditioned to accept, and begin to question.
Callan: Under The Red File by Andrew Pixley is an exhaustive guide to the production of this classic television series and is now available for purchase via Network’s website.
For anybody who has an interest in British archive television, Pixley’s name should be well known. He’s produced viewing notes for many Network titles over the years (most recently The Professionals) as well as for various BBC titles (such as their short-lived science-fiction releases). He also penned the Archive feature in Doctor Who Magazine for many years.
The bulk of the research in the book was carried out some years ago and the intention was that the book would form part of a Callan boxset, together with all the existing episodes and some additional special features. For one reason or another, the boxset has yet to appear – so now we have the opportunity to buy the book by itself.
If you’re familiar with Pixley’s work then you’ll know what to expect. This is a highly factual, production-based work. If you’re looking for a glossy, well-illustrated tome then this may not be for you. But if you want facts, you’ve certainly got them here.
Callan is one of those programmes that has never really been examined in great detail before. I can’t recall any previous books published on the show (although there is another, from Miwk, due out later in the year). This means that there’s a wealth of material that was new to me – especially about the early (sadly incomplete) black and white episodes.
If you love Callan, this is an essential purchase. It can be ordered direct from Network’s website here. Network’s blurb on the book is below.
Nearly ten years in the writing, Callan: Under the Red File has been a labour of love for both Network and the book’s author, Andrew Pixley. Anyone familiar with Network’s releases will know our history with Andrew is a long one and he has done some excellent work for us over the years – with his books on The Prisoner, Danger Man, Public Eye and The Professionals all raising the bar for this type of archive research. Ahead of our upcoming Callan documentary, you can now buy Andrew’s new book exclusively from networkonair.com.
Initially a cult success before becoming one of British television’s most watched programmes, Callan brought the gritty, downbeat angle of Cold War espionage to 1960s British television. In stark contrast to the glamour of James Bond and the stylized capers of The Avengers, the man known as David Callan was a highly skilled killer, tasked by the Government to eliminate threats to national security. This reluctant, conscience-wracked assassin was brought to life in a remarkable performance by Edward Woodward, cementing his popularity as an actor many years before he achieved major international success in both Breaker Morant and The Equalizer.
This exhaustive book is the definitive look at the creation, production, broadcast and reception of all four series. From its conception as a one-off BBC play, through its development by ABC Television, its success as one of Thames Television’s highest-rated programmes, its subsequent ATV revival and its expansion into novels, short stories and movies – this single volume covers every aspect of James Mitchell’s most successful creation.
Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert is a rich biography of a woman who was at the heart of British television for five decades.
When Lambert first made her mark in television (during the early 1960’s) it was still a highly male-dominated preserve, so her appointment as the first producer of Doctor Who, in 1963, was met with a certain amount of resistance and gossip.
Richard Marson (drawing on an impressive list of interviewees as well as numerous archive sources) is deftly able to recreate the atmosphere of those early days. Hired by the head of drama, Sydney Newman, there were many who assumed that she had only got the job by sleeping with him (which she always strongly denied).
Doctor Who proved to be an ideal training ground and it launched a career that only ended with her death in 2007. After leaving Doctor Who, her major career highlights included the Adam Faith series Budgie (for which she cast Iain Cuthbertson as Charles Endell) and Minder (where she cast George Cole as Arthur Daley).
The story of Verity Lambert’s television career is also, in many ways, the story of how British television has changed. When Lambert was in charge of Thames’ film unit, Euston Films, she was able to green-light projects she liked straight away. A good example of this is Minder – she read Leon Griffiths’ initial four-page outline, instantly saw it was a winner and the series went into production shortly after.
But from the mid 1980’s onwards (when she became an independent producer) she’d find herself at the mercy of an increasing number of executives and many decent-sounding ideas (which are discussed in the book) never got past the planning stage.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were Lambert’s peak years in many ways. Firstly as a producer at the BBC (Doctor Who,Adam Adamant Lives!, the Somerset Maugham plays). Then after the BBC decided to dispense with her services in 1970, she moved to LWT and scored a considerable hit with Budgie. She then returned to the BBC as a freelance producer in 1974, with Shoulder to Shoulder (six 75 minute plays about the suffragette movement).
After this, she went to Thames as Head of Drama (overseeing production on programmes such as The Naked Civil Servant and Rumpole of the Bailey). She would later fulfill the same function at Euston Films (amongst their greatest successes were Minder and Reilly: Ace of Spies). But when she left Euston in the early 1980’s to take up a plum position as Director of Production for Thorn-EMI, it was to be the start of a frustrating period in her professional career.
She found it difficult to put the films she wanted into production, whilst some she did back eventually proved to be less than satisfactory. After several frustrating years (and once notable film, A Cry in the Dark, as an independent film producer) she returned to television – with her own company Cinema Verity.
As an independent producer she would sometimes have to battle with the television executives of the day, although her company did score some hits – such as May to December and Sleepers. But her later career was rather overshadowed by one notorious failure – Eldorado.
Launched by the BBC as a thrice-weekly soap-opera in 1992, the series was bedeviled by problems. The purpose-built structure in Spain had been hastily constructed and boasted poor acoustics, whilst many of the cast were young and inexperienced. But it’s debatable whether the blame should rest with producer Julia Smith (painted by many contributors in the book as an intensely controlling character) or Lambert herself (who seems to have been a rather passive figure until late on, which for her was unusual).
But she was able to bring her career to a happier conclusion by producing Jonathan Creek from series two onwards, as well as forming strong friendships with both David Renwick and Alan Davies.
Indeed, friendship is at the heart of Richard Marson’s book. The number of people who agreed to be interviewed is a long one and this is a clear testament to how loved Verity Lambert was. The figure that emerges from this book is an energetic, driven, intensely loyal, occasionally volatile woman with a strong sense of humour.
Richard Marson is also content to let both the contributors and the numerous archive sources he’s assembled speak for themselves. Some biographers seem to have a desire to have their voice dominate proceedings. Not so with Marson, and the section concerning Lambert’s marriage to Colin Bucksey is a good example of this.
Their marriage in 1973 took many of her friends by surprise – Bucksey was not only some ten years her junior, but the fact that he was just a cameraman (whilst she was already a respected figure in the industry) was clearly also a problem for many of them. But while there are numerous disparaging comments about Bucksey, these are countered by positive ones from other people. Marson made the right decision in this case (and throughout the book) to not let his own voice intervene – which means that the reader can judge the merits of individuals encountered during the book for themselves.
Given that Richard Marson’s previous book was a biography of Doctor Who‘s last producer from the original run, John Nathan-Turner, it’s a nice dovetail that his next book is a biography of Doctor Who‘s original producer. Drama and Delight is quite different in tone though. JN-T certainly had his friends and admirers, but he was a much more divisive figure – and his biography reflects that.
The tone of Drama and Delight is much more upbeat – Verity Lambert had a hugely successful career (although inevitably there were setbacks and disappointments) and she was able to attract and keep a large group of loyal friends. It’s not a complete love-fest though, as Verity’s long-running feud with fellow producer Irene Shubik is examined (their strained relationship culminated in the alleged BAFTA vote-rigging scandal).
Like the JN-T biography, Drama and Delight isn’t a book about Doctor Who, so anybody who buys it for that alone is likely to be disappointed. The series was a very important part of Lambert’s career (and is discussed in a very decent chapter) but in total it only took up two years of her life. Where Drama and Delight really excels is in highlighting areas which are less well known (such as the frantic live performance of Armchair Theatre, which saw the cast and crew attempting to work around the death of one of the actors, mid-transmission).
Overall, this is as well-researched and comprehensive a book as you could hope to expect. It’s a fine record of a true pioneer of British television.
You can buy the book direct from Miwk here. A Miwk podcast with Richard Marson discussing the book can be downloaded here.
“The World At War is unique in factual television. Forty years after its first transmission it is as popular, possibly even more popular, than it was when first shown. Factual channels that were not in existence when the series was made eagerly compete to show it today. This is as true in the US and in many other major television markets, as it is in the UK. No other factual series can claim this.”
The stature and enduring appeal of The World At War makes it an ideal programme to merit an entry in the BFI’s Film & TV Classics series. Each book offers a concise, well-written overview of its subject as although Downing’s book is only 180 pages, it manages quite effectively to describe the factors that enabled Thames Television to undertake what was an expensive, time-consuming and potentially very risky programme.
When The World At War entered production in 1971, there hadn’t been a major British television documentary series produced about WW2. The BBC had been mulling over various ideas for some time but hadn’t made any firm commitments. And Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1, was of the opinion that since the BBC had only recently launched colour television, a lengthy documentary series featuring mainly black and white footage wouldn’t be a good idea.
Over at Thames, there was more interest in the idea and the return to power of the Conservatives in 1970 was a key factor in kick-starting the production of The World At War. Under the previous Labour government, all the ITV companies were required to pay a hefty Levy to the government for the privilege of operating an independent television licence. The Conservatives substantially reduced the amount of the Levy, which immediately freed up substantial funds which could be put into new programming.
Jeremy Isaacs, an experienced programme-maker at both the BBC and ITV, knew that the reduction of the Levy meant that the time was right to make the series. The speed at which it was green-lit was remarkable and it’s impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening today. Within twenty-four hours the Managing Director of Thames, Howard Thomas, had agreed and the wheels started to move.
In retrospect this was a big risk, as the Thames board hadn’t been consulted and neither had the other ITV regions. At this time, the dozen or so ITV regions all had to agree to network their programmes, so if the other regions had decided not to take The World At War then it would have been a major blow. Twenty-six prime-time slots devoted to a WW2 documentary was a substantial undertaking, but Thames were happy to leave thoughts such as scheduling to a later date.
The first thing that Isaacs needed was to get a major figure onboard as a historical consultant. Dr Noble Frankland, Director of the Imperial War Museum was an obvious choice, but he had not enjoyed the experience of working with the BBC a decade earlier on their WW1 series The Great War.
Frankland felt that on far too many occasions The Great War had used archive footage incorrectly by failing to distinguish when it had been reconstructed or faked. He was heartened to learn that Isaacs shared his desire to be rigorous with the use of archive footage and happily agreed to work as the consultant on the series.
Taylor Downing deftly examines the various production processes that over the course of the next three years were responsible for bringing the twenty-six episodes into existence.
Several different directors worked on individual programmes and they all brought something different to the subjects tackled. The availability of footage and interviewees also affected each episode, so that some featured only scant footage and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and vice-versa.
Downing also discusses the role played by composer Carl Davis and narrator Laurence Olivier. Olivier and Davis contributed to all twenty-six episodes and so they helped to give a unity to the overall series. The inclusion of a major figure like Olivier was deemed essential by Thames’ management, and was somewhat against the wishes of Isaacs, and Downing feels that his mannered delivery is something that now dates the series. I’d disagree with this as Olivier’s narration, for me, tends to always be spot on – and his narration is only used sparsely, as generally either the pictures or the eye witnesses are used to tell the story.
Also examined by Downing is the style of documentary that The World At War was and its enduring legacy. Whilst, he concedes, it was out of date almost as soon as it was first broadcast (the revelations of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, came to light just too late to be used) the programme’s main themes and its use of first-hand testimonies means that it remains a series that is still able to resonate with audiences today.
Episode 20, Genocide, which documents the terrible events of the Holocaust, is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was forty years ago, but the impact of both the footage and the eye-witnesses from both sides remain undimmed. Many episodes of The World At War are outstanding, but surely none more so than this one.
Downing concedes that the series isn’t perfect, as although it presented a more global picture of the war than had previously been seen, there are still omissions – China and Poland, for example, are barely mentioned.
Overall, Downing’s book provides the reader with a clear overview and is the perfect companion to this landmark British documentary series.