The Blue Peter Diaries by Richard Marson. Miwk Book Review

bp diares

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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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.

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

drama and delight

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.

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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.