Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Curse of the Chosen, by Alexis Deacon

A little over four years ago, I posted about A Game Without Rules, the second volume in the Geis trilogy of graphic novels written and illustrated by Alexis Deacon. I said then that I eagerly awaited the third and final volume - but didn't anticipate having to wait quite so long.

Since then, the first two instalments of Geis have been issued in a single tome, now called Curse of the Chosen. And now, at last, comes what's called Curse of the Chosen Volume II: The Will That Shapes the World but I think of as Geis III. It's a slightly smaller size than Geis and in paperback, but the moment I opened the cover I was back in that extraordinary, strange world as if I'd never been away.

As before, we're in a weird fantasy castle where a deadly contest is taking place. Originally, 50 competitors vied with one another to become the new head of state, but that's been whittled down to a handful - and one of them is, we now realise, not at all what she seems. There's something here of Squid Game, only with magic and talking animals, perhaps mixed up with the Earthsea of Ursula le Guin. Plus the artwork is beautiful, even as the horror mounts. More than once I gasped.

One of the things that makes this story so effective, I think, is how much the odds are stacked against the kindly, heroic characters - a young girl, a small man and a cat. That strikes a chord with something TV mogul Sydney Newman says in his memoirs, having watched different audiences in front of the same movies.

“A revelation to me was discovering how to get a sure response from an audience: compassion.” (p. 99)

 That's what this: extraordinary, imaginative and compassionate fantasy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Head of Drama, by Sydney Newman (with Graeme Burk)

Written in 1987 and published in 2017, this memoir is subtitled "The life and times of the creator of Doctor Who" - a claim Newman was, at the time he wrote the book, battling the BBC to acknowledge. My mate Graeme Burk, who edited the book and wrote the accompanying essay, explains why this credit meant so much to him then, when so much of his extraordinary work for television had been rather forgotten. 

Burk had access to the Newman archive, and I'm beside myself with envy at some of the material he's had at his fingertips. The Ur-text of all Doctor Who archaeology is the 1972 book The Making of Doctor Who by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. According to Burk, Hulke wrote to Newman on 6 August 1971 asking him for memories of how the programme came about. On 28 September, Newman replied:

“I don't think I'm immodest in saying that it was entirely my concept, although inevitably many changes were brought about by Verity Lambert, who was its first producer. She would be the very best source of information, better than say, David Whitaker or even Donald Wilson.” (pp. 448-449)

However, by the time Newman sent this, Hulke had spoken to Donald Wilson (on 8 September) who told him what's generally considered the fact: that Doctor Who was created by Newman and Wilson.

“It was just Sydney and I together, chatting. At an early stage we discussed it with other people, but in fact the title, as I remember, I invented…” (p. 450)

Burk digs into this, citing some counterclaims, analysing the surviving paperwork from those early days and addressing the issue that some key papers appear to be missing from the archive. I've some more to add to this in my forthcoming book on story editor David Whitaker.

Anyway, Doctor Who is just one of the many, many shows Newman worked on. Head of Drama conveys the extraordinary range and impact of his work, from documentary films to opera and everything in between. There's what he learned from double-checking ticket sales in a cinema and watching the reactions of different audiences to the same film, and what working in newsreel and sport taught him about staging drama. He delights in telling us when he got something wrong - he was against employing chat-show host Ed Sullivan, tried to cancel the Daleks and resisted Donald Wilson in commissioning The Forsyte Saga

But time and again, Newman's instincts for what would be popular and connect with a broad audience were dead right. Just one example of his many, many insights here:

“I laid down some simple notions [while at ABC]. Some people become physically ill when they see blood, and only a fool wants an audience to puke. Ergo, show blood with care. Some in the audience are daffy with hate, so don’t show them how to make a bomb. Viewers will identify with the innocent character, so being bound and helpless and tortured becomes powerfully disturbing, and that kind of reaction is a turn off. And finally, avoid common, easily available weapons such as a kitchen knife, so as not to provoke a viewer who may be feeling momentary murderous rage to act upon it in the moment.” (p. 304)

Newman gives full credit to the many writers and producers and talented people he worked with, but he's an amazing, funny and honest storyteller. There are some amazing stories here. Just before the Second World War, he was offered a job with Disney but had to head to back to Canada to sort out a visa. On the way, a fellow passenger seems to have reported him - as being an illegal immigrant from Mexico! The result was jail and some very hairy moments, but Newman tells it all with compassion and a wry smile, tying it all into a broader theme of having always been an outsider, an exile. And then he concludes that without this sorry business and the problems of a visa, had he been able to take that Disney job, he'd have ended up drafted into the US army and killed at Iwo Jima.

He shrugs that all off and is then onto the next drama.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

Ulysses Temper is a British soldier in Italy during the Second World War. There he befriends art historian Evelyn Skinner, and helps her rescue paintings from the conflict. We follow Ulysses home to austere, post-war London, to discover that his wife Peg has had a baby with someone else and now wants to divorce him. Ulysses bonds with his ex-wife's daughter in a way Peg never has, and when he returns to Italy the girl goes with him. Around them flit and linger other lives, a cast of misfits variously longing and grieving and muddling things out. Along the way there are musings on fate and art and love, and a sense of the muddle slowly being worked out...

I loved this strange, big-hearted ramble of a book, its vivid characters, its love of life and the echoing horror of loss. The death of one kindly character late on hits extremely hard. How fitting, too, to fall into a novel all about passion for the art of Urbino and Florence as I drove to the memorial for my old A-level Art History teacher, who on Friday afternoons more than 30 years ago shared his joy at Giotto, Uccello and Massaccio.

Friday, June 24, 2022

On the Sixth Doctor Who

I've been enjoying the new Blu-ray release of the 1985 series of Doctor Who, adventures that made such an impression on me as kid. And that's prompted me to look out the introduction I wrote for The Court Jester, the now out-of-print book version of the blog in which Sue and Neil Perryman watched all the Sixth Doctor's episodes...

Foreword by Simon Guerrier

Thursday, 15 March 1984

My first thought is “good.” Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has just introduced Colin Baker as the new Doctor Who. My family don't buy newspapers and no one's said anything at school, so I'm pretty sure this is the first time I learn that Peter Davison is leaving. I've still not forgiven him for replacing Tom Baker.

Friday, 16 March 1984

The poisonous bat poo the Doctor touched three weeks ago finally kills him. My elder brother and sister join me and my younger brother to watch part four of The Caves of Androzani. I think it's the first time they – now serious, grown-up teenagers – have watched since The Five Doctors. They tell us, as always, that Doctor Who used to be much scarier than this sorry nonsense. I'm certain they're right and can't wait for this story to finish so we can get on to the new Doctor as he's sure to make everything better. I mean, a boy at school insists Colin is Tom Baker's brother.

Thursday. 22 March 1984

The Sixth Doctor era proper begins with part one of The Twin Dilemma. It's a very intelligent story – it must be, as I'm not always sure what's happening or what the Doctor is talking about. It's not exactly a scary story, but the Doctor attacking poor Peri and then later hiding behind her for safety means we're not sure what to make of him. “Look how clever they're being,” I'd tell my siblings if they asked my opinion. But they don't.

Saturday, 5 January 1985

A boring shopping trip to Southampton turns out to be a brilliant trick by my parents, and me and my younger brother are really off to see the stars of Doctor Who in the pantomime Cinderella. Colin Baker runs on to the stage pushing a shopping trolley with a Doctor Who number plate on it, to the most deafening cheer from the audience. People really love his Doctor! My parents' ingenious plan is to see the matinee performance so that we can be home in time for the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who on TV. But we get caught in traffic because of a football match, so I miss Part One of Attack of the Cybermen. There is much weeping.

Saturday, 12 January 1985

I sit entirely baffled by what's happening in Part Two of Attack of the Cybermen, certain it would all make sense if only I'd seen part one. (I don't get to see part one until 1993, and am still not entirely sure what's happening.)

Saturday, 26 January 1985

Part Two of Vengeance on Varos gives me nightmares. I'm really creeped out by the monstrous Sil and the story is full of horrid details, but what really gets me is when the Doctor rescues Peri from being turned into a bird. She looks human but the Doctor has to keep repeating her name to re-imprint her identity. The thought I can't shake is that she might be permanently changed, a monster on the inside...

Saturday, 16 February 1985

ITV shows The A-Team at the same time as Doctor Who. After some discussion with my brother and a friend who doesn't have a telly so is often round to watch ours, we agree to video part one of The Two Doctors and watch The A-Team live. I distinctly remember the logic involved: Doctor Who is the one we'll want to watch more than once. It's not as slick, the fights aren't as good, and it's not so loved by our schoolmates but there's more to each episode. Good thinking, eight year-old me.

Saturday, 9 March 1985

I completely love Part One of Timelash. At school the next week, I insist to a friend that of course bumbling Herbert will be the new companion.

Saturday, 23 March 1985

The scariest moment ever seen in Doctor Who – at least, I think so now. Natasha finds her father, who's being turned into a Dalek and begs her to shoot him. The writing, performance, effects and music are all perfectly horrible. These days, I show a clip of this in talks I give on Doctor Who – just to see the audience squirm. After one talk, the parents of a keen young fan make a point of apologising to me for having told their daughter that Doctor Who wasn't very good in the 1980s.

Saturday, 30 March 1985

We're still watching The A-Team live and videoing Doctor Who, each week recording over the previous episode on the one tape we're allowed to use. Part Two of Revelation of the Daleks is the final episode of this year's series so doesn't get taped over the following week. My younger brother's interest in Doctor Who is waning but my three year-old brother Tom watches that tape again and again for weeks. A moment in that episode haunts me each time I see it, even now. As the Doctor runs down a corridor on his way to battle the Daleks, he thinks he hears Peri being exterminated. There's a moment of horror, of pain, on his face, and then he rallies himself and runs on. No words, just how Colin Baker plays it, so perfectly the Doctor.

Sometime in April 1985

It's all my pocket money, but I spend the vast sum of £1 on the 100th issue of The Doctor Who Magazine. It's a massive disappointment, lacking the weird wonder and excitement the TV series kindles in me. Instead, the magazine is full of lengthy, dense articles about the minutiae of the programme's past. I cannot fathom why anyone would find this of interest. I don't buy DWM again for five years.

Summer 1985, Winter 1985, Spring 1986

Then there's a gap. It came as a complete surprise to me, many years later, to learn that Doctor Who had been on hiatus for 18 months, that there'd been criticism of the violence in the programme, that it was even discussed on the news. At the time, I don't spare the absence a thought – of course Doctor Who will be on again at some point. I don't know there's been a new Doctor Who story, Slipback, on the radio until its released on cassette years later. But I've begun producing my own Doctor Who stories in which my brothers are horribly killed by various monsters.

Tuesday, 24 June 1986

I'm pretty sure I get the novelisation of Timelash for my 10th birthday. The TV version is my favourite of the Sixth Doctor's stories to date, and I read the book over and over. One big appeal is the references to the Third Doctor who, thanks to the Target books I've been picking up second hand and from the library, is my all-time favourite Doctor. But the story also really grabs me, and I spend the summer leaping over the garden sprinkler to be banished back in time.

Saturday, 6 September 1986

Doctor Who returns in a story called The Trial of a Time Lord. I'm especially pleased because we had a school trip to the “ancient” farm at Butser Hill used as a location. But otherwise the first four episodes seem to leave little impression. My memories of the Doctor Who I watched in the 1980s are usually vivid, but when I watch Part One of Trial again on video years later, I'm amazed to discover I can't recall any of what happens next. Perhaps Doctor Who wasn't affecting me as deeply as it once did – no longer the terrifying experience I couldn't bear to miss. Or perhaps these first episodes of the story were completely blotted out of my memory by the ones that followed.

Saturday, 4 October 1986

I am properly terrified by the return of Sil from last year's Vengeance on Varos. This section of the Doctor's trial is the last time Doctor Who ever really scares me. Part of the reason I've stuck with the series all these years on is the morbid hope it will scare me like that again.

Saturday, 1 November 1986

Bonnie Langford makes her d├ębut as Mel. My wife says this is when she made the decision to stop watching Doctor Who, which means she still doesn't know the outcome of the Doctor's trial. (Don't tell her.)

Saturday, 6 December 1986

The final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord – and of the year's Doctor Who

Saturday, 13 December 1986

I sit through hours of programmes on BBC One before the dismal truth sets in that one 14-episode story is all we're getting.

Thursday, 18 December 1986

Colin Baker, in his Doctor Who costume but not quite in character, appears as a team captain on the Tomorrow's World Christmas special. I take this as irrefutable evidence that he's busy filming the new series which must surely start on TV early in the new year. I can't wait!

Monday, 2 March 1987

Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has news about the next series of Doctor Who – and chats to her mate Sylvester McCoy who is going to be the new Doctor. I am flabbergasted. Sylvester McCoy is from children's programmes! 

Monday, 7 September 1987

The unceremonious end of the Sixth Doctor, who dies by falling over in the TARDIS before the opening titles of Time and the Rani Part One. I sharply recall my embarrassment at how silly the rest of the episode is, sure Doctor Who has lost its way. I've also just started secondary school, and realise that Doctor Who is no longer a programme to be fiercely discussed in the playground over the next week. I mention this to a friend who's gone to a different secondary school and he's astonished. “Are you still watching Doctor Who?”

But I am. It becomes a guilty pleasure. I know – because people keep telling me – that Doctor Who is not as good as it used to be. It was once something everybody watched but now I know hardly anyone who'll admit to having seen the latest episodes. 

Today, I know there were problems behind the scenes of the programme: disagreements between those making it, a lack of interest high up at the BBC, a dozen other things. I avidly read – and contribute to – articles in DWM poring over exactly what was to blame. But I also know it was as much to do with the age me and my friends were at the time, and the other pressures and interests affecting us. They simply outgrew this children's programme while I couldn't let it go.

The upshot is that the Sixth Doctor's era marks a fundamental change in my relationship to Doctor Who. Whatever anyone else thinks of this period of the show – and Neil and Sue are about to share their own strong opinions on it – it holds a special place in my heart.

Because at the start of Colin Baker's time as the Doctor, the programme was something I shared with pretty much everyone I knew. By the end, it was mine.

Simon Guerrier

24 April 2017

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #579

There's a lot going on in the world(s) of Doctor Who at the minute. Production is under way on next year's 60th anniversary episode(s?), with David Tennant and other stars spotted out filming. The 1985 series of Doctor Who has just been released on Blu-ray (including the extras me and brother Tom made for Vengeance on Varos). And the 10-part podcast drama Doctor Who Redacted has just finished its run. All these things are covered in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine.

As well as all this, there's a new "Sufficient Data" infographic from me and Ben Morris, this time on the ages and ages of the actors playing Doctor Who.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

CERN: Science Fiction and the Future of Detection and Imaging

I've had the most amazing few days in Geneva as a guest of Ideas Square at CERN. It's the first time I've been out of the UK in three years, and I was jangly with nerves for a good week before setting off; I'll be jangly with excitement about it all for some time to come.

During lockdown, my friend Dr Una McCormack roped me into some online sessions where sci-fi writers (hello!) were brought in to help / hinder the work being done by students from round the world in attempting to imagine the future impact of technology. This week, a bunch of us assembled in person, got a tour of the Large Hadron Collider and other CERN bits and bobs, and had lots of really interesting chat about, well, everything really. There was high-end physics, and high-end gossip, and high-end physics gossip.

I've returned home with pages and pages of notes in my notebook - bits of new ideas, lists of things to read or look into, random bits of detail. For example, one thing that boggled my brain was that work on constructing the CMS detector (one of a number of detection instruments located round the Large Hadron Collider) was delayed by the discovery of Roman ruins on site which then had to be painstakingly excavated. I'm taken by the Nigel Kneale-ish thought of ancient ghosts being picked up by the sensitive detectors...

Then there was the fact that when building this underground facility the team had to dig through a subterranean river. To do so, they dug down to the level of the river, then froze it and dug through the ice, constructing a concrete-lined shaft through the middle before letting the ice thaw. Ingenious!

And how extraordinary, how liberating, to discover that in visiting the CMS we had crossed the border into France without a moment's thought, let alone all that mucky business with passports. Coming home, there weren't enough ground crew to let us off the plane so we sat stewing for 45 minutes. There must be a better way of doing things, I thought. Which was exactly the sort of thing these few days have been about.

Here are a few pictures...

View of mountains from CERN hostel

Geneva tram, for my father-in-law

More mountains, plus v hot writer

Tour of the CMS facility;
photo of detector like a gothic rose window

Going underground

Warning signs to give one pause

The LHC creates a magnetic field;
look at its effect on these paperclips!

Doctor U and her plucky assistant

New hat / cool museum

Hot, hot evening, and yet snow on the mountains

Marie Curie clearly delighted to meet me

Very heavy lead,
so dense it would shatter to dust if dropped
Arty reconstruction of CMS, using mirrors
 (cf Maxtible in The Evil of the Daleks)

Old-skool, pretty wiring in old device

Where the web,
and so much of my life, began

Cool retro tech in a garden

More cool, retro tech

The Champions
(ie me, Una McCormack and Matthew De Abaitua)

Friday, June 17, 2022

Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama, by Irene Shubik

The Wednesday Play was a prestigious anthology of (mostly) one-off plays, 182 of them broadcast by the BBC between 1964 and 1970. The series then moved to a different day of the week and, as Play for Today, a further 306 (mostly) one-off plays were broadcast between 1970 and 1984. One of the producers, Irene Shubik published this memoir in 1975 (and produced a revised, updated edition in 2001), detailing how and why plays were put on.

One reason for writing such a book is to have a permanent record of the plays at all. As Shubik says at the end of the book, the most noteworthy episodes were repeated - but usually just once. There was no facility to buy episodes for home viewer or to see them screened anywhere else. In many cases, episodes weren’t kept by the BBC anyway. The British Film Institute, with a remit to collect and preserve key bits of screen culture, lacked the resources to do much.

“All it [the BFI] can do is send its recommended lists to the BBC in the hope that the programmes will not actually have been wiped or junked. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that a student in a hundred years time, hoping to make a study of English television productions in the 1970s will have sufficient material to do so; most of these ‘chronicles of our times’ will have vanished into the ether, condemned by the sheer weight of their numbers, to oblivion.” (p. 182)

She provides a long list of all the plays broadcast in the series up to 11 December 1972 - a valuable resource in the days before the internet made such things readily available - and then another, shorter version of those plays that she herself oversaw. She divides these plays into chapters based on type or style, and provides us with her insights - how they were commissioned, anecdotes about production, responses they received from the press and public. There's an engaging mix of gossip and technical detail, just the sort of thing I like.

There is a brief history of television drama prior to 1964: BBC Television began in December 1936; in 1937 some 123 plays were broadcast, an “astonishingly high figure” though many “were repeats and most were very short in length, from 10-30 minutes”. The majority were adaptations from stage and prose works,

“But even in 1937 there were two pieces put out which were original commissions for the medium: The Underground Murder Mystery by J Bissell Thomas (lasting ten minutes) and Turn Round by SE Reynolds lasting thirty minutes. These were the first two pieces of original English TV drama.” (p. 33)

Though there continued to be original works in the years that followed, Shubik marks 1953 as a pivotal moment in television drama.

“The reason why certain names keep recurring from that year [1953] Wilson, Kneale, Philip Mackie, John Elliot, and Anthony Stevens, among them, was that a policy had been adopted of putting certain promising writers on the staff, to form a sort of writer’s workshop. The idea was that by adapting and story-editing other people’s scripts, and working close to the productions, this nucleus of writers could best learn about the medium. Hierarchically, the structure of the department was Head of Drama (Michael Barry) and Head of Script Department (Donald Wilson), with a group of writers and directors working on all types of drama (plays, series and serials) under their supervision. … Nigel Kneale was the first writer to be put on this scheme, in 1951 [having] convinced the BBC drama department to give him a contract (at £5 a week), first to adapt one of is own [prose] stories and later (eventually at £15 a week), to become a staff writer and adapter.” (p. 34)

She remarks on how little this was.

The next pivotal moment in her history is the ITV network ABC (covering the Midlands) making Canadian producer Sydney Newman its head of drama in 1958. Two years later, Newman gave Shubik a job as script editor. In 1963, he began as Head of Drama at the BBC and gave Shubik a job there the following year.

There is a lot of Newman’s character, behaviour and appearance. Shubik quotes fellow story editor Peter Luke’s assessment of Newman as “a cross between Genghis Khan and a pussycat”, refers to his “Groucho-Marx-like sense of humour” and thinks him “undoubtedly one of the most dynamic men who ever worked in English television.” (p. 9). She’s good on why Newman had such an impact, too.

For example, “probably the first controversial piece”, or play, broadcast in the UK under Sydney Newman was Ray Rigby's Boy With a Meat Axe. Shubik quotes from the review by Norman Hare in News Chronicle on 22 November 1958: the play “included a murder accusation, a young girl getting drunk, and a street fight … as well as using a lavatory as one of the settings” (p. 25).

Newman wanted contemporary, revenant drama, yet for all his dramatists tackled the issues of the day, Shubik says Newman also “wanted as much variety as possible on the programme and a few plays starring ‘blondes with big boobs’ to temper the gloom” (p. 19). And while ABC drama anthology series Armchair Theatre did well,

“The size of the audience, as Sydney was always modestly reminding us at script meetings, was undoubtedly helped greatly by the fact that the programme followed [variety show] Sunday Night at the London Palladium” (p. 31)

Given this last point, it’s odd that when Shubik devotes a chapter to audience response, she doesn’t think there’s much to be gained from comparisons across genre. This is her on the merits of knowing numbers of viewers and their percentage score for a given programme (the “appreciation index”):

“Within the framework of his own programme, therefore, the producer can get some idea from programme research as to which plays were most watched and most liked; to compare one’s own programme with other types of programmes, for example comedy or documentary or sport, is a useless occupation as it is accepted that audiences for different types of viewing will differ.” (p. 180)

Newman recognised that this simply wasn’t true: a significant number of those watching a variety show would stay on to watch contemporary drama, even if only because they didn’t make the effort to switch off or over. Likewise, when Newman devised Doctor Who, he wanted a new, made-for-television drama that would retain the audience from sports show Grandstand and appeal to those tuning in for pop music show Juke Box Jury. Achieving this not only made Doctor Who a hit but led to the BBC dominating Saturday evening TV.

There’s no mention of Doctor Who here. Sadly, Shubik tells us that her oversight of anthology series Out of the Unknown (sci-fi) and Thirteen Against Fate (adaptations of stories by Georges Simenon) are not within the purview of this book - a shame, as it would be interested to know how she thought her work on these differed to the more prestigious one-off plays. She briefly mentions her time as story editor on Story Parade, and one episode in particular: an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (about a detective who is a robot), but doesn’t mention Terry Nation, who adapted it for TV.

What is useful for my research into Doctor Who story editor David Whitaker is the many insights into Sydney Newman: why he broke up the BBC’s drama department (to increase productivity, p. 32); what made him a good producer (“the ability to assess personalities and match talents successfully”, p. 26); what he thought made a good story or script editor (“the courage to tell the author it [a script] was not good enough”, p. 29); what he’d look for when viewing a “producer’s run” of a play in the rehearsal room ( he had a “keen instinct for what was dramatic in a production and what was boring and self-indulgent on the part of the director or actors” and Shubik learned, from him, to “look at an outside rehearsal not as a stage play, but through the eyes of the cameras”, p. 49).

There are other interesting details too - why filming is more expensive than recording on videotape, the practicalities of working with different writers, the buzz of production with limited budget and time. Plus I have another production to add to my list of TV and film made at Grim’s Dyke: an episode of The Wednesday Play by David Rudkin, House of Character, including filming at “Grims Dyke Manor [sic] and Ham House in thick fog” (p. 91), with production beginning in October 1967.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Doctor Who Chronicles: 1967

I've a couple of features in the new Doctor Who Chronicles bookazine from the splendid lot that make Doctor Who Magazine. This one is devoted to the year 1967.

In "From the Archives", I trawl through BBC paperwork to reveal "the story of a turbulent year and last-minute changes in the making of Doctor Who."

In "Life on Mars", I examine the life of writer Brian Hayles, whose "most enduring contribution to Doctor Who was the creation of the Ice Warriors, but this was just part of his prolific output."

If this is your sort of thing - and why in heaven wouldn't it be? - you can still buy my book on the 1967 Doctor Who story The Evil of the Daleks. And there's also the issue of Doctor Who Chronicles for 1965, in which I wrote some stuff.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Into the Unknown: the Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, by Andy Murray

I bought this after the event in April to mark Nigel Kneale's centenary. Originally published in 2006 (when Kneale was still alive), this is the updated 2017 edition. Its largely based on interviews with Kneale himself, conducted in 2002 and 2003, going through his various works in order. That's then peppered with other bits of interview and context. It's comprehensive - covering lots of stuff Kneale worked on that was never made - and full of fascinating detail. Yet it's also concisely told: a rattling good story.

Andy Murray is really good at identifying what makes so much of Kneale's work highly effective. One sentence, from Kneale himself on why the 1979 version of Quatermass didn't match the power of the earlier serials, is telling of his work as a whole: 

"The central idea was too ordinary." (p. 210)

Also excellent is teasing out common themes, interests, strengths. I'd always found it odd that the author of Quatermass and Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote sitcom and for Sharpe and Kavanagh QC. Now I see how these things all connect: Murray's especially good on demonstrating how the Kavanagh episode, about an old and respected doctor who might by a former Nazi, is thematically in keeping with Quatermass and the Pit, in which ancient and long buried evil is suddenly brought into the light.

There's a good sense of Kneale in all this - or rather of two Kneales. One is Nigel, the cantankerous, curmudgeonly writer, all too ready to say what he thinks about other people's failings and continually cross about money. The other is Tom: kindly, supportive and practical, a devoted husband and father - and model for the dad in the Mog books.* My sense is that many of the people Murray spoke to either met one or other of these men. There was something mercurial about Kneale; something fittingly impish.

Among the many fascinating details, I was struck that, though Kneale left his staff-writing job at the BBC to go freelance from 1 January 1957, he continued to make use of his office at the BBC - presumably in or around Lime Grove - which was convenient for meeting up with directors etc. His wife, Judith Kerr, continued to work in the BBC's script unit until the end of 1957 - her six-part adaptation of Buchan's The Huntingtower was broadcast in June and July (Murray says the Scottish dialogue polished by head of department Donald Wilson (p. 88)); another adaptation by Kerr, The Trial of Mary LaFarge, was broadcast on 15 December. Kerr left the BBC around this time as her daughter was born the following month.

That means she must have overlapped with David Whitaker, whose life I'm currently researching. He joined the unit around October 1957, his first work as a staff writer - for which he didn't get a credit on screen or in Radio Times - broadcast less that two weeks after Kerr's last. I'm rather taken by the potential of that overlap, given that Whitaker later asked Kneale to write for Doctor Who.

This has sparked some further thoughts - but more on that anon.

* How amazing to learn (p. 145) that the dad in The Tiger Who Came to Tea was in part modelled on Alfred Burke, at the time the star of detective series Public Eye, and a neighbour of Kneale and Kerr.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Competition, by Asa Briggs

This mammoth, more-than-a-thousand-page account of broadcasting in the United Kingdom between 1955 and 1974 is the fifth and final volume in Asa Briggs’ definitive history largely focused on the BBC. ITV is included, but mostly in terms of its impact rather than in its own right. 

Very quickly after launching in September 1955, ITV offered more hours of entertainment than the BBC. Advertising revenue also quickly made ITV very profitable - a one-shilling share in 1955 was worth £11 by 1958 (p. 11). With more money on offer, there was a huge flow of talent from the BBC; 500 out of 200 staff members moved to ITV in the first six months of 1956. The result was a desperate need for new people and a sharp rise in fees, doubling the cost of making an hour’s television (p. 18). Audiences responded to the fun, less formal ITV. The low point for the BBC came in the last quarter of 1957, 

“when ITV, on the BBC’s own calculations, achieved a 72 per cent share of the viewing public wherever there was a choice.” (p. 20)

A lot of what follows is about the BBC’s concerted efforts to claw back that audience. But the book is as much about rivalry inside the BBC - the infighting of different departments, the effort to make the new BBC-2 different from and yet complementary to BBC-1, and the ascendance of TV over radio.

The latter happens gradually but with telling shifts. Since 1932, the monarch had addressed the nation each Christmas by radio; in 1957, Queen Elizabeth made the first such broadcast on TV (p. 144). That seems exactly on the cusp of the audience making the switch: in 1957 more radio-only licences were issued than radio-and-TV licences (7,558,843 to 6,966,256); in 1958 there were more TV-and-radio than radio-only licenses (8,090,003 to 6,556,347) (source: Appendix A, p. 1005). There’s a corresponding flip in the money spent on the two media: in 1957-8, expenditure on radio was more than on TV (£11,856,120 to £11,149,207); in 1958-9, more was spent on TV than radio (£13,988,812 to £11,441,818), and that gap only continued to widen (source: Appendix C, p. 1007). Yet aspects of BBC culture were slower to shift: Briggs notes that “The Governors … held most of their fortnightly meetings at Broadcasting House [home of radio] even after Television Centre was opened [in the summer of 1960]” (p. 32).

Television was expensive to buy into: the “cheapest Ferguson 17” television receiver” in an advertisement from 1957 “cost £72.9s, including purchase tax” (p. 5). Briggs compares the increased uptake of TV to the ownership of refrigerators and washing machines - 25% of households in 1955, 44% in 1960 - as well as cars (p. 6). So there was more going on that what’s often given as the reason TV caught on - ie the chance to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. The sense is of new prosperity, or at least an end to post-war austerity. Television was part of a wider cultural movement. The total number of licences issued (radio and TV) rose steadily through the period covered, from 13.98 million in 1956 to 17.32 million in 1974 (source: Appendix A, p. 1005). By 1974, the Report of the Committee on Broadcasting Coverage chaired by Sir Stewart Crawford felt, according to Briggs, that,

“People now expected television services to be provided like electricity and water; they were ‘a condition of normal life’.” (p. 998)

This increase in viewers and therefore in licence fee revenue, plus the competition from ITV, led to a change in attitude at the BBC about the sort of thing they were doing. Briggs notes that the experimentalism of the early TV service gave way to more and more people speaking of “professionalism” - skill, experience and pride in the work being done (p. 24). I’m struck by how those skills was shared and developed:

“The Home Services, sound and television, gain … from the fact that they are part of an organisation of worldwide scope [with staff] freely transferred … from any one part of the corporation to another [meaning that Radio and TV had] a wide field of talent and experience to draw upon in filling their key positions”. (pp. 314-15)

There are numerous examples of this kind of cross-pollination. Police drama Dixon of Dock Green was produced by the Light Entertainment department. Innes Lloyd became producer of Doctor Who at the end of 1965 after years in Outside Broadcasts, which I think fed in to the contemporary feel he brought to the series, full of stylish location filming. Crews would work on drama, then the news, then Sportsview, flitting between genre and form. Briggs cites a particular example of this in two programmes initiated in 1957 following the end of the “toddlers’ truce”.

For years, television was required to stop broadcasting between 6 and 7 pm so that young children could be put to bed and older children could do their homework. But that meant a loss in advertising revenue at prime time, so the ITV companies appealed to Postmaster General Charles Hill, who was eventually persuaded to abolish the truce from February 1957. But what to put into that new slot?

“Both sides [ie BBC and ITV] recognised clearly that if viewers tuned into one particular channel in the early evening, there was considerable likelihood that they would stay with it for a large part of the evening that follows.” (Briggs, p. 160)

The BBC filled the new gap with two innovative programmes aimed at grabbing (and therefore holding) a very broad audience. From Monday to Friday, the slot was filled by Tonight, a current affairs programme that basically still survives today as The One Show. The fact that it remains such a staple of the TV landscape can hide how revolutionary it was:

“Through its magazine mix, which included music, Tonight deliberately blurred traditional distinctions between entertainment, information, and even education; while through its informal styles of presentation, it broke sharply with old BBC traditions of ‘correctness’ and ‘dignity’. It also showed the viewing public that the BBC could be just as sprightly and irreverent as ITV. Not surprisingly, therefore, the programme influenced many other programmes, including party political broadcasts.” (p. 162)

Briggs argues that part of the creative freedom came because Tonight was initially made outside the usual BBC studios and system, as space had been fully allocated while the truce was still in place. The programme was made in what became known as “Studio M”, in St Mary Abbots Place, Kensington. But the key thing is that this informality, the blurring of genre, spread.

“This [1960] was a time when old distinctions between drama and entertainment were themselves becoming at least as blurred as old distinctions between news and current affairs and entertainment.” (p. 195)

Jon Pertwee, Adam Faith
Six-Five Special (1958)
On Saturdays, the same slot was filled by music show Six-Five Special. Briggs says that this and Grandstand (which began the following year in October 1958) were not the first programmes devoted to pop music or sport, but their under-rehearsed, spontaneous style was completely innovative (p. 200). Although Six-Five Special had a special appeal to teen viewers, it and Grandstand were, importantly, “not allowed to target one audience alone” (p. 199). With such broad, popular appeal,

“along with a number of other Saturday programmes, it [Six-Five Special] helped to reconstruct the British Saturday, which had, of course, begun to change in character long before the advent of competitive television [and was, with Grandstand, part of] a new leisure weekend.” (p. 199)

Elsewhere, Briggs notes the impact of TV - especially of ITV - on other forms of entertainment: attendance at football matches and cinemas dropped, with many cinemas closing (p. 185). Large audiences of varied ages were becoming glued to the box. I’d dare to suggest that this was not a “reconstruction” but the invention of Saturday, the later development of Juke Box Jury, Doctor Who, The Generation Game etc all part of a determined, conscious effort to compete with ITV with varied, engaging, good shows.

(On Sundays, the BBC continued to honour the truce, with no programming in the 6-7 slot that might compete with evening church services. From October 1961, the slot was taken by Songs of Praise.)

One key way of making good television was to write especially for the small screen. Briggs, of course, cites Nigel Kneale in this regard - though his The Quatermass Experiment and Nineteen Eight-Four are covered in Briggs’ previous volume. But Stuart Hood in A Survey of Television (1967) notes how sitcom grew out of the demands that TV placed on comedians:

"the medium is a voracious consumer of talent and turns. A comic who might in the [music or variety] halls hope to maintain himself with a polished routine changing little over the years, embellished a little, spiced with topicality, finds that his material is used up in the course of a couple of television appearances. The comic requires a team of writers to supply him with gags, and invention" (Hood, p. 152)

Briggs has more on this. For example, Eric Maschwitz, head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, remarked in 1960 that,

“We believe in comedy specially written for the television medium [and recognise] the great and essential value of writers, [employing] the best comedy writing teams [and] paying them, if necessary, as much as we pay the Stars they write for” (Briggs, p. 196-97)

Briggs makes the point on p. 210 that, “The fact that the scripts were written by named writers - and not by [anonymous] teams - distinguished British sitcom from that of the United States.” Some of these writers, such as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, became household names. Frank Muir and Denis Norden appear, busy over scripts, in Richard Cawston’s documentary This is the BBC (1959, broadcast on TV in 1960): these are writers as film stars.

Hancock’s Half Hour (written by Galton and Simpson) and Whack-o (written by Muir and Norden) were, Briggs says, among the most popular TV programmes of the period, but he also explains how a technological innovation gave Hancock lasting power. 

In August 1958, the BBC bought its first Ampex videotape recording machine. At £100 per tape, and with cut (ie edited) tapes not being reusable, this was an expensive system and most British television continued to be broadcast live and not saved for posterity. (Briggs explains, p. 836n, that Ampex was of more practical benefit in the US, where different time zones between the west and east coasts presented challenges for broadcast.)

From July 1959, Ampex was used to prerecord Hancock’s Half Hour, taking some of the pressure of live performance off its anxious star (p. 212). Producer Duncan Wood, who’d also overseen Six-Five Special, then made full use of Ampex to record Hancock’s Half-Hour out of chronological order, 

“allowing for changes of scene and costume … Wood used great skill also in employing the camera in close-ups to register (and cut off at the right point) Hancock’s remarkable range of fascinating facial expressions … Galton and Simpson regarded the close-up as the ‘basis of television.’” (p. 213)

Prerecording allowed editing, which allowed better, more polished programmes. What’s more, prerecording meant Hancock’s Half-Hour could be - and was often - repeated, even after his death. The result was to score particular episodes and jokes - “That’s very nearly an armful” in The Blood Donor - into the cultural consciousness. Another, later comedy series, Dad’s Army, got higher viewing figures when it was repeated (p. 954).

Clive Dunn, Michael Bentine
It's a Square World (1963)
Yet not all prerecorded shows survive or, even if they do, retain such cultural impact. I was fascinated to read Briggs on Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World (1960-64), which he wrote with John Law (most famous now for co-writing the “Class Sketch” with Marty Feldman). Some 46 of the 57 episodes of this pioneering series still exist, but there’s no DVD release and I don't think it's been repeated. A clip included on the DVD of Doctor Who: The Aztecs gives a sense of the anarchic, richly inventive fun: Clive Dunn, dressed as Dr. Who, accidentally launches Television Centre into space, with commentary from Patrick Moore just like he’d give on The Sky at Night. How I’d love to see the episode referred to by Briggs, where the Houses of Parliament are attacked by pirates and sink into the Thames, which caused trouble at the time of the 1964 general election...

Briggs says of the appeal of the later Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which he insists on referring to as “the Circus” rather than the more common “Python”) that,

“It took basic premises and reversed them. It’s humour, which was visual as much as verbal, again often succeeded in fusing both.” (p. 950)

More than that, it was comedy that spoofed and subverted the structures and furniture of television itself. In this, it surely owed a big debt to Bentine.

He’s not the only one to have been rather overlooked in histories of broadcasting. I’ve seen it said in many different places that Verity Lambert, first producer of Doctor Who, was also at the time, 

“the BBC’s youngest, and only female, drama producer” (Archives Hub listing for the Verity Lambert papers)

Yet Briggs cites Dorothea Brooking and Joy Harington as producers of “memorable programmes” for the children’s department, referring to several dramas adapted from books. Harington had also produced adult drama - for example, she oversaw A Choice of Partners in June 1957, the first TV work by David Whitaker (whose career I am researching). In early 1963, “drama and light entertainment productions for children were removed from the Children’s Department,” says Briggs on page 179, with this responsibility going to the newly reorganised Drama and Light Entertainment departments respectively. Lambert may have been the only female producer in the Drama Department at the time she joined the BBC in June 1963. Except that Brooking produced an adaptation of Julius Caesar broadcast in November 1963, and Harington was still around; she produced drama-documentary Fothergale Co. Ltd, which began broadcast on 5 January 1965. 

(Paddy Russell’s first credit as a producer was on The Massingham Affair, which began broadcast on 12 September 1964. Speaking of female producers, Briggs mentions Isa Benzie and Betty Rowley, the first two producers of the long-running Today programme on what’s now Radio 4 (p. 223). My sense is that there are many more women in key roles than this history implies.)

Stripped of responsibility for drama and light entertainment, the children’s department was incorporated into a new Family Programming group, headed by Doreen Stephens. According to Verity Lambert, this group was envious of Doctor Who - a programme they felt that they should be making. When, on 8 February 1964, an episode of Doctor Who showed teenage Susan Foreman attack a chair with some scissors, it was felt to break the BBC’s own code on acts of imitable violence. As Lambert told Doctor Who Magazine #235,

“The children’s department [ie Family Programming], who had been waiting patiently for something like this to happen, came down on us like a ton of bricks! We didn’t make the same mistake again.”

Lambert had to write Doreen Stephens an apology, so it’s interesting to read in Briggs that Stephens didn’t think violence on screen was necessarily bad. In a lecture of 19 October 1966, she spoke of “overcoming timidity” in making programmes, and believed that,

“violence and tension [don’t] necessarily harm a child in normal circumstances [while] in middle-class homes of the twenties and thirties, too many children were brought up in cushioned innocence … protected as much as possible from all harsh realities.” (Briggs, p. 347).

"Compulsive nonsense"
Doctor Who (1965)
Briggs devotes a whole subsection to “New Programmes: Dr Who and Z Cars” (pp. 416-434), the complexities of creating and running Doctor Who a good case study for understanding television more broadly. I'm acutely conscious in my work that the fact Doctor Who is so long-running makes it an especially rich source text for social and cultural history, but Briggs is really concerned with explaining its early appeal.

“The university lecturer Edward Blishen called Doctor Who ‘compulsive nonsense’ [footnote: Daily Sketch, 3 July 1964, quoting a Report published by the Advisory Centre for Education], but there was often shrewd sense there as well. At its best it was capable of fascinating highly intelligent adults.” (p. 424)

Beyond the specific subsection, there are other insights into early Doctor Who, too. For example, Briggs tells us that,

“nearly 13 million BBC viewers had seen Colonel Glenn entering his capsule at Cape Canaveral before beginning his great orbital flight [as the first American in space, 20 February 1962]. An earlier report on the flight in Tonight had attracted the biggest audience hat the programme had ever achieved, nearly a third higher than the usual Thursday figure [footnote: BBC Record, 7 (March 1962): ‘Watching the Space Flight’’]” (p. 844)

Could this have inspired head of light entertainment (note - not drama) Eric Maschwitz to commission - via Donald Wilson of the Script Department - Alice Frick and Donald Bull to look into the potential for science-fiction on TV. Their report, delivered on 25 April that year, is the first document in the paper trail that leads to Doctor Who.

Then there is the impact of the programme once it was on air. On 16 September 1965, Prime Minister Harold Wilson addressed a dinner held at London’s Guildhall to mark ten years of the ITA - and of independent television. Part of Wilson’s speech mentioned programmes that he felt had made their mark. As well as Maigret, starring Wilson’s “old friend Rupert Davies”,

“It is a fact that Ena Sharples or Dr Finlay, Steptoe or Dr Who … have been seen by far more people than all the theatre audiences who ever saw all the actors that strode the stage in all the centuries between the first and second Elizabethan age.” (Copy of speech in R31/101/6, cited in Briggs, p. 497).

Two things about this seem extraordinary. One, Wilson - who was no fan of the BBC, as Briggs details at some length - quotes four BBC shows to one by ITV. And at the time, Doctor Who was not the institution it is now, a “heritage brand” of such recognised value that its next episode will be a major feature in the BBC's centenary celebrations this October. When Wilson spoke, this compulsive nonsense of a series was not quite two years-old. 

But such is the power of television...

More by me on old telly: