Doctor Who – The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J. Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

It was good fun being a Doctor Who fan in the 1990’s. Maybe this was because there were no new television stories to be ripped to shreds (apart from the quickly forgotten American TV movie). So DW fandom stopped complaining about the present and began to really dig into the past. 

A hefty and lavishly illustrated hardback (The Early Years by Jeremy Betham, 1986)  had already stoked my interest in the series’ first faltering steps, but it was this modestly priced, modestly sized paperback published in 1994 which really took my breath away.

To be a DW fan back then meant that studying the sacred texts (The Making of Doctor Who and DWM especially) was a solemn duty. Slowly the nascent fan would begin to drink in all the lore and history – which stories were classics, which were turkeys, how jabolite was used, the companion who lost their knickers the most, etc, etc.

One of the most important lessons concerned the first few months of the show. We all knew that things looked dicey in the early weeks until the Daleks arrived in the second story – after that, the long term future of the show was assured.

Um, not quite.

The heart of The First Doctor Handbook was the Production Diary. This laid bare just how hand-to-mouth those early years were and how often the series teetered on the edge of cancellation. I seem to recall some info had already appeared in The Frame, but most of it was new to me.

Frankly, it’s an astonishing and eye-opening read (one day, when all the files are available, I’d love to see the production history of the first 26 years of the series tackled in a single volume, or indeed a number of volumes).

The Production Diary might account for a large chunk of the book, but the interview material (both from and about Hartnell) is also of interest. More information about Hartnell has become available since, but this deftly edited selection of quotes still stands up well.

The Handbook also includes an obligatory episode guide which is somewhat of its time (The Gunfighters receives a firm thumbs down for example).

I have far too many DW books (including a fair few I’ve rarely touched in decades) but The First Doctor Handbook is one I do find myself coming back to every so often. For anyone interested in the painful birth of the series it’s a must read. 

The Guinness Book of Classic TV by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping

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Imagine, if you can, a time before the Internet. Back in those far off days, obtaining information about your favourite television programme (especially if it was slightly obscure) was both difficult and time-consuming.

So The Guinness Book of Classic TV (2nd edition, 1996) was a real godsend. To be able to have episode guides close at hand for series such as Doctor Finlay’s Casebook was very welcome, even if there was no way to actually watch the programmes.  Still, we could dream about a time when all this material would be available at the touch of a button ….

Over 100 programmes were covered, including the likes of The Troubleshooters, The Forsyth Saga, The Army Game, Up Pompeii!!, Citizen Smith, Hancock’s Half Hour, The Young Ones, Absolutely Fabulous, Watch with Mother, Dixon of Dock Green, Callan, Edge of Darkness, Doctor Who, The Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Upstairs Downstairs, Colditz, Secret Army and I Claudius.

The opening analysis – an absorbing ten-page trot through the history of Coronation Street – begins the book with a bang and this high standard is maintained throughout. Mind you, given this is a Cornell/Day/Topping tome it’s unlikely that you’re going to agree with all their opinions (poor Crossroads is given a bit of a kicking).

It’s also interesting to find the later years of Dixon of Dock Green labelled as a dangerous and embarrassing anacronym. That was certainly a widely held view back in the nineties although the DVD release of most of the existing colour episodes has helped to rehabilitate the show in recent years.

There are a few omissions – Public Eye and Sergeant Cork for example – although in the pre-DVD age that’s not really surprising (Cork especially languished in obscurity prior to its emergence on DVD, so if it wasn’t available twenty five years ago you can’t really blame them for ignoring it).

The Guinness Book of Classic TV has aged well. As I’ve said, a few entries are slightly eyebrow raising but most of the book is packed with pithy and well-constructed capsule reviews. It’s been a well-thumbed favourite on my bookshelf for over twenty years and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it for many years to come.

Blue Peter – The Inside Story by Biddy Baxter and Edward Barnes

I’ve been digging through my collection of television books during the past few months (unearthing some which haven’t seen the light of day for a while) and I thought it might be a good idea to highlight a few which I’ve enjoyed revisiting.

Blue Peter – The Inside Story was published by Ringpress Books in 1989, running to 236 pages. Although very much the authorised story, it’s still packed with interesting detail. That 1989 was a very different time is confirmed by the revelation that when the original Petra died after just a few days, they calmly went out and bought a ringer (and no-one was any the wiser).

Later scandals which befell BP (Socks-gate, the phone -in) don’t seem any worse than this but I don’t recall the Petra revelation causing any sort of ripple in the press back in 1989.

Down the years some presenters were more of a handful then others. It’s easy to see that Biddy had her favourites and it’s also noticeable that some long-runners (like Peter Purves) were appreciated rather than loved.

The sticky relationship with John Noakes can’t be avoided and his exit from the programme (which was rather uncomfortable due to concerns he would use Shep for advertising purposes) isn’t swept under the carpet. The travails of Janet Ellis and Michael Sundin are also touched upon (it’s quite obvious there was little love for Sundin in the BP production office).

Second hand copies are plentiful and quite inexpensive, so there shouldn’t be too much trouble in picking up a copy. Blue Peter – The Inside Story is well worth a place on your bookshelf.

Peter Wyngarde – A Life Amongst Strangers by Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins

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I’ve been a fan of Peter Wyngarde’s film and television work for a fair few years, but until now I didn’t really know a great deal about the man himself – apart from a series of oft-repeated tales (which no doubt grow more distorted every time they’re repeated).

Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins’ hefty tome (clocking in at over 500 pages) has been designed to rectiy this and although she’s obviously approached the book intent on righting perceived wrongs from various points in Wyngarde’s life, it still manages to paint a vivid picture of a charismatic, but often difficult, man.

Wyngarde-Hopkins first met Peter in the early nineties when she set up a fanzine dedicated to him. Over the years their bond grew closer as she became his assistant, companion and eventual soul mate. Drawing upon an impressive archive (letters, scripts, diaries, interviews) she’s been able to fashion a substantial biography where the subject is often able to chip in on the subject in hand.

His early years, as a prisoner of the Japanese in an interment camp in Shanghai, are vividly portrayed. There are lighter moments – organising theatrical entertainments – but also darker ones (the guards broke both his feet in order to discourage him from running about).  Wyngarde’s relationship with his parents – his mother looks to have been something of a flighty man-eater whilst he idolised his father (who died at sea in 1947) – is also touched upon.

Rather like his mother, Wyngarde enjoyed a healthy sex life (one of the things he’s – along his with acting – probably best known for). And as he attempted to establish a name for himself as an actor in post-war Britain, there were no shortage of opportunities for liasons.  Plus plenty of invitations which Wyngarde declined (from the likes of Noel Coward, Peggy Ashcroft and Bette Davis). It’s up to the reader to decide how much of this is credible – no doubt Wyngarde wasn’t above spinning a tall tale or two.

His years in provincial rep and his eventual emergence during the 1950’s as a familiar face on both the London stage and as an early television favourite are entertainingly sketched. The likes of Kenneth Williams and Orson Welles feature in some amusing anecdotes.

By the 1960’s Wyngarde was guesting in a number of cult television series which still endure to this day. Most notably The Avengers and the episode A Touch Of Brimstone, in which he played the Honorable John Cleverly Cartney, leader of a modern Hellfire Club. Wyngarde would later recall that Cartney’s whip cracking was very carefully choregraphed – one wrong move could have resulted in a serious injury for Diana Rigg.

His real ascent to cult fame would, of course, come with Department S and Jason King. Paid the princely sum of £336 for the first thirteen episodes (rising to £1,000 if the series continued past that point) Wyngarde seems to have earned the respect of many of the guest actors (Anthony Hopkins speaks warmly of his experience working with him on Department S) although it was a different story with his co-star Rosemary Nichols. More detail on this – or indeed production of both series – would have been welcome, as they’re dealt with rather quickly.

Two very different events during the seventies are still debated today by Wyngarde watchers. The first is his 1970 self-titled spoken word album, which included such memorable offerings as “Rape”. Judging by the eleven tracks not included in the final cut (including “Merry Sexmas”) it could have been a double album ….

A Life Amongst Strangers posits that RCA had hoped the album would be a flop, thereby allowing them to write it off as a tax loss. But unfortunately for them it turned out to be a success. That’s certainly an interesting spin on events.

In 1975 Wyngarde was fined £75 for committing an act of gross indecency in the public toilets at Gloucester Bus Station. Although he kept working, this dealt a devastating blow to both his career and public image from which he never really recovered.  Wyngarde-Hopkins remains convinced he was innocent (and that he was PERSECUTED! not prosecuted).  Throughout the book she’s also at pains to dismiss the numerous rumours concerning his sexuality – presenting Wyngarde as a firmly heterosexual character.

From the eighties onwards the work began to dry up, although there were still some notable credits, such as Flash Gordon (1980) and a guest role in a 1984 Doctor Who serial (Planet of Fire). Peter Davison would remember Wyngarde’s contribution to this story in his autobiography, although this still attracted Wyngarde-Hopkins’ ire (due to the fact he misspelt Wyngarde’s surname and omitted him from the index).

His final years, as his health began to falter, makes for bleak reading – although by the end you’re left in no doubt about just how much Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins loved him.

A Life Amongst Strangers offers a substantial portrait of Peter Wyngarde. As with all autobiographies and biographies the reader will have to decide just how accurate a portrait it is, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on detail.  Published by Austin Macauley, it’s well worth checking out.

Peter Wyngarde biography due February 2020

A biography of the legendary cult actor Peter Wyngarde is due to be published on the 28th of February 2020 by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd 

Written by his long-term partner and soulmate Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins, the press release states that the book will reveal the real man behind the colourful public image whilst not shying away from the controversy that surrounded his personal life. 

Most people who worked with Wyngarde seem to have formed strong opinions about him – either pro or negative – so I look forward to this book with great interest.

Soupy Twists by Jem Roberts – Book Review

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If you’ve more than a passing interest in British comedy, then the name of Jem Roberts should be a familiar one. His three previous books – The Clue Bible, The True History of the Black Adder and The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams – are all proudly lined up on my shelves, and they’re now joined by his latest – Soupy Twists: The Full, Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As the lengthy title indicates, this is no hastily knocked together unauthorised history. Although it draws upon previously published interviews (selected quotes from Stephen Fry’s volumes of autobiography are also effectively dropped in) there’s plenty of fresh insights as well. Although if you’re looking for scandal then you’ve come to the wrong place – the partnership between F&L has always been a very harmonious one (although the handful of cross words they’ve shared are discussed along the way).

Beginning their comedy marriage, along with a group of significant others such as Emma Thompson, during their undergraduate days at Cambridge, F&L seemed to effortlessly move into television during the eighties via Alfresco, Black Adder, Saturday Live and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. It wasn’t quite as smooth as that of course, so the odd misstep (The Crystal Cube) is also touched upon.

Alfresco (and its predecessor There’s Nothing To Worry About!) might be largely unloved today (indeed, they were largely unloved back then as well) but I’ve always had something of a soft spot for them, so there were some nice new nuggets of information in this section for me. For example, I never knew that Rik Mayall was nearly part of the troupe.

It’s no surprise that A Bit of Fry & Laurie takes up a fair chunk of the book. And quite right too. There’s some fascinating material here – sketch extracts which never made it to screen as well as tantalising titbits about more cut sketches, such as further Tony and Control meetings ….

Another notable cut from S2 of ABOF&L featured Rowan Atkinson (this was deemed not to be worthy of transmission – which makes me even more intrigued to see it). Whilst Fist of Fun was the gold standard of DVD releases (virtually everything which still existed from the studio tapes – save a few moments snipped for legal reasons – made it onto the bumper releases) sadly A Bit of Fry & Laurie was a depressingly bare-bones DVD release (no extra footage at all). It would be nice to think that a deluxe ABOF&L DVD set might appear one day (well we all have to have dreams).

Apart from Fry and Laurie themselves, a host of friends and collaborators pop up to offer their own insights. Some of these are quite sharp – such as Deborah Norton, who found working with Stephen during the first series of ABOF&L to be rather difficult (although when they met years later everything was much more harmonious).

Their post-partnership careers (following the broadcast of the fourth series of ABOF&L in 1995) are neatly summed up in the final chapter before we reach the rather appetising dessert – nearly one hundred pages of unseen extracts from the Fry & Laurie archive. There’s plenty of good stuff here, most of which could easily have turned up on television.

Covering all the bases, this is a detailed and entertaining read which I devoured in several sittings. Highly recommended.

The Blue Peter Diaries by Richard Marson. Miwk Book Review

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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.

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Red, White and Who – Book Preview

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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.

Remotely Interesting – Ben Baker (Book Review)

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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.

Prophets of Doom – The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch to be reprinted

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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. Network book review

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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.

Book Review. Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert by Richard Marson (Miwk Publishing)

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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).

Verity Lambert (centre) with the original cast of Doctor Who
Verity Lambert (centre) with the original cast of Doctor Who

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.

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 by Taylor Downing (BFI TV Classics) – Book Review

cover

In his introduction, Downing writes that –

“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.

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Avengers by Michael Richardson (Book Review)

coverRunning for most of the 1960’s, The Avengers transformed itself from a humble domestic series shot on VT to a glossy all-film vehicle that enjoyed a successful run on American network television.

Whilst there have been a number of books about the series previously published, there has never been any which have discussed the production history of the programme in any great depth, until this one.

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Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee

This has clearly been a labour of love for Michael Richardson as years of research and writing has finally been distilled into a heavyweight tome – clocking in at an impressive 810 pages.

Honor Blackman
Honor Blackman

The first section of the book is devoted to an indepth production history of the original series and The New Avengers, season by season and story by story. There’s plenty of information that was new to me, and Richardson has made use of all the available production paperwork to paint as full a picture as could be expected. Rewrites, proposed storylines from various writers which were never made, network feedback, production wrangles, etc all help to illuminate the production process.

Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg

The later sections of the book look at the various spin offs (the 1970’s play, the South African radio series and the 1990’s film amongst others). There’s also a lengthy appendix devoted to listing as much as is known concerning the production filming dates. Not all the paperwork exists, but it’s fascinating reading to look at certain stories and see exactly where and when they were shot – and also how the shooting of various stories overlapped. Of niche interest maybe, but I’m glad it’s been included.

Linda Thorson
Linda Thorson

This is very much a factual book, so if you’re looking for reviews and analysis then this might not be the book for you. It’s more in the line of Andrew Pixley’s writings and probably isn’t something that is necessarily best read from cover to cover – rather it’s an ideal companion to a chronological rewatch of the series.

The paperback is currently retailing for around the £25.00 mark (and given the pagecount I do wonder how long it would be before the spine begins to show evidence of wear and tear). Given this, I went for the much more affordable Kindle option – which is currently selling for around £5.00. The first Kindle edition didn’t have a table of contents and there were also a few typos, but these have now been corrected and all is as it should be.

L-R - Joanna Lumley, Gareth Hunt and Patrick Macnee
L-R – Joanna Lumley, Gareth Hunt and Patrick Macnee

For anybody interested in the production history of The Avengers, this is an essential read.

Telos Publishing, June 2014.