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For a long time I've wanted to set up an online repository of my interviews, reviews and other writings ... and here it is! Use the Subject List to the right to select an author/topic and you will get all the entries which relate to the selected subject. Have fun browsing through!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Serious Talk about Doctor Who 2

This is a second version of the 'Serious Talk' I found lurking on my hard drive. This seems to be a slightly cut down version with some other variances too. I have a feeling this was done for a second event later on ...

DOCTOR WHO. What was it all about? Who really knows the ‘true’ story?

There have been loads of books written about the show – most of them by myself – but so far we haven’t been able to tell the ‘real’ story simply because it’s far too unbelievable and would probably embarrass all those involved.

However, I feel that the time has come to ‘spill the beans’ so to speak, and to finally reveal the little known history of the show.

When we came to do our books we decided to be a little radical and to actually do some research, on the assumption that if we did this, then the books might end up slightly more interesting.

‘Doing research’ generally involves a lot of sitting around in bars, chatting to people who can’t remember their own name or where they live, never mind the fact that they might have once appeared as an extra in a DOCTOR WHO story in 1943, or was it 1997?

Sometimes, however, you stumble across some real treasures.

It was in a bar in 1990 that we met Percy Higgins. Percy must have been 100 years old if he was a day, and yet had a memory that was as keen and as fresh as if he had been out clubbing with Keith Richards every night for the last twenty years.

Higgins had apparently been employed by the BBC back in the early sixties as a minute taker and senior taxidermist to the Director General. He still had in his possession a file of minutes from early in 1963 which charted the incredible story of DOCTOR WHO from the point of view of someone who had actually been there.

When we looked through these documents, it became obvious that there was no way we could use the material. The story was totally at odds with that told by the BBC’s files and by others involved.

For a start, Sydney Newbalm, the BBC’s head of ideas and internationally renowned expert on big cigars, who had been brought over from Canada to smoke much of the BBC’s Columbian stock, had an assistant named Eugene. Eugene was American and his job was mainly to tell Newbalm how good all his ideas were and to maintain the BBC’s supply of cardigans which all staff members were contractually obliged to wear at all times.

It was on the 24th of February 1963 that a meeting was held between Newbalm, Eugene, Higgins and Mrs Swipp the tea lady to discuss how they might fill that annoying dead space between the sports coverage and the News on Saturday evenings.

Mrs Swipp favoured a cookery show, perhaps hosted by someone vaguely famous – her suggestion for the two team captains were: a struggling actor named Ronald Reagan; and Mr Ed – in which a team attempted to cook something almost edible in twenty-five minutes. Opinion was split, although Newbalm felt this was, quote, a waste of airtime, and no goddam good at all.

Higgins’ contribution was to suggest a series charting the progress of two FBI agents as they investigated strange happenings across America. The main thrust of the show was that, although these two agents obviously liked each other, they never had a relationship. As both were men, this was felt by Newbalm to be a, quote, damn good thing. And further more, quote, there’ll be none of that goddam hanky panky trouser stuff on my channel.

The idea was eventually dropped.

Newbalm came up with the idea of a series which involved some people travelling about in a spaceship that appeared to be a lot bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. The crew would be multi-cultural in that the one that everyone would grow to love would be an alien, but that there would also be a family feel, and the crew would always try and do the right thing.

Newbalm even came up with a voice-over speech to start each episode with, that went:

“Time and Space, the ultimate barrier. These are the journeys of the time-ship TARDIS. It’s twenty-six year mission to go everywhere, to find new planets and new viewers. To go without any fear whatsoever to places that no person has ever been before.”

At which point the space ship would zoom across the screen as the opening music began.

I mentioned TARDIS there. It’s a common fallacy that this word is made up from the initial letters of a phrase that describes its ability to seem bigger on the inside than on the outside. In fact, the name came from a word that Newbalm used to use to describe people who arrived for work late. Tardies, he used to call them. The idea behind the spaceship in DOCTOR WHO was that it always arrived late to wherever it was going, and so the same term was applied to it.

Anyway … Newbalm’s idea was rejected on the basis that it was far too obvious, and Eugene was told to shred all the documentation. Apparently, from Higgins’ notes, the lad went away clutching the papers and with a distinct gleam in his eye.

Eventually, Newbalm went off on a six-month golfing luncheon to Antarctica and left the development of this new show in the capable hands of Verity Lambeth – who liked to be known as Bert – a young producer who had showed promise in the canteen one morning by eating a bagel in one mouthful.

Lambeth was charged with coming up with a title for the series.

On one rare archive note, is scrawled in Lambeth’s handwriting, what appears to be a list of possible titles for the show. The list reads:


All but the last one were crossed off, obviously indicating that these had been rejected by Lambeth. The last entry is underlined, clearly showing that this was the one she decided to go with. Of course ‘Visit Doctor Who’ was a bit of a mouthful and so it was shortened, partly because it would fit better on the screen, but mostly because the BBC’s graphic department, being what it was – namely a store for rabbit entrails – only had enough rub-down lettering to do the ‘Doctor Who’ part. Even then, their first attempt came out as ‘Doctor Oho’ and they had to rapidly change it, but not before some early test footage had been carried out of the title sequence.

The titles were created by a chap called Bernard Bodge in his back room one afternoon, by pointing his parents’ video camera at a television and recording what he saw. When his parents returned, they saw what he had done, returned the Linda Lovelace tapes to the video shop and stopped Bernard’s pocket money for a year.

This experience so traumatised the young Bodge, that he later insisted that the world was created from black and white splodges mirrored in the middle. His career came to an untimely end when he joined forces with a man named Rorshach and started seeing … things … in his splodges.

With the titles cracked, next came the problem of casting. Lambeth initially everyone wanted someone young and vibrant to play the leading character, Mr Who as he was then known. But unfortunately George Burns was not available. Newbalm sent a telegram between courses with some suggestions: it appears that he had seen some up and coming actors while passing through Canada and felt they might work. However no-one else had ever heard of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and deForest Kelly so the telegram was passed to Eugene for shredding.

Ultimately, Lambeth drew up a shortlist of suggestions. Her first choice was someone with the qualities she was looking for. He was a bit of a clown but popular with the ladies. An up and coming actor with a slight Scots accent, someone who could really get the show off with a bang. Apparently this actor also had a nice line in ferrets-down-the-trousers and nails-up-the-nose gags.

Unfortunately, Sean Connery had just done a film with a very similar title, and didn’t want to get typecast as only appearing in shows with ‘Doctor’ in the title. Nevertheless Lambeth’s ideas persisted, and in 1987, an actor was finally cast to play the Doctor who fulfilled her basic requirements (and, funnily enough, actually appeared with a ferret in THE HAPPINESS PATROL).

Second choice would have been Frank Sinatra, but no-one took the suggestion of a singing Doctor seriously. Finally, Lambeth plumped for William Hurndell as she liked army sergeants enormously. Especially the uniforms …

To write the scripts she chose a comedy writer named Jerry Nation. Nation has variously been cited as the person who actually created DOCTOR WHO, but this is blatantly incorrect. All Nation did was to write scripts based on the spines of a set of encyclopaedias. Two of his most successful being:


Sometimes he even opened the books as well … but for that he had to be on double-money.

When William Hurndell became too expensive to continue in the role, the production team decided that DOCTOR WHO was too good to stop, and so utilised a technique used several times in television known as ‘hoping the audience won’t notice’. They simply replaced William Hurndell with Patrick O’Troughton as he happened to be in the studios doing an interview on a film he’d just finished called THE AFRICAN QUEEN and didn’t notice when the interviewer was replaced by a cockney, a dolly bird and a Dalek.

This is where the idea of the Doctor playing the part blacked-up and wearing a wig comes from. O’Troughton was actually playing a dark-skinned wind-jammer captain in the film and simply got confused.

When Sydney Newbalm heard of the plans, he insisted that the BBC also make another version of the first O’Troughton story for the fans. ‘They’ll never go for all that goddam replacing the actor nonsense’ he insisted, and so a special audio version of the final episode of THE TENTH PLANET – which was the last story to feature William Hurndell – and of all of THE POWER OF THE DALEKS – Patrick O’Troughton’s first story – were made which included lots of pseudo-scientific nonsense about the Doctor changing.

Newbalm made sure that the master tapes of the actual transmitted episodes were destroyed immediately following transmission – in fact they were all given to a passing schoolboy called Ian – and then leaked the new audios in the seventies, thus convincing fans that there was a ‘proper’ reason for the change over. Over the years, this brilliant piece of misdirection has become a part of DOCTOR WHO mythology, and even fans who saw the original transmissions, today firmly believe that there was a reason for it all at the time. The deception was given further credence by Newbalm writing to the RADIO TIMES under some false names both hailing and slagging off O’Troughton, just in case someone noticed that the change of actor had not been explained on screen.

To further muddy the waters, Newbalm got a vision mixer named Shirley Coward, to mix together two photographs of Hurndell and O’Troughton and record the result onto video thus giving the impression that the Doctor had changed. This piece of footage, which had never actually been in the transmitted show, was eventually given to the childrens’ magazine programme BLUE PETER when they wanted something to use for a celebration of ten years of DOCTOR WHO.

When it came to the next change of Doctor, Higgins’ documents stopped, but we were fortunate to stumble across one Herbert Smoth, who actually worked as a janitor, cleaner and head of heavy entertainment at what used to be called BBC Television. In fact, we literally stumbled across him, sleeping under a park bench close to Television Centre one Thursday lunchtime.

With his help and the piles of rubbish, old clothes, props, bits of paper and cigarette packets that he had collected over the years and carefully stored in about twenty old plastic shopping bags contained in a wire shopping trolley, we were able to piece together a hitherto unknown history of the following eras of the programme. Of crucial importance here was a sheaf of cracked, yellowing papers, which, as Herbert recalled, had been left in the gents on the fifth floor of TV Centre in the early seventies.

These were a godsend. They turned out, once we had cleaned and photocopied them, to be a series of interviews with everyone that had been connected with DOCTOR WHO who had since died.

This was quite a find, and through the numerous notes, transcripts and carbon sheets, we were able to piece together the true story of DOCTOR WHO in the Seventies.

It all started with Sydney Newbalm, who, far from retiring to his ranch in California as everyone had thought – in fact there was some argument as to whether he had ever returned from lunch in the Antarctic – was actually secretly line-producing DOCTOR WHO at the end of the O’Troughton era while Derrick Shergar and Peter Tryout were involved with PAUL TEMPLE.

It was Newbalm who cast the third Doctor, and scribbled on the back of an old cigarette packet which Herbert had retrieved from ‘a senior executive’s office’ in 1969, were the actual casting notes.

The first choice was Bob Newhart.

Now, he was a hot favourite, as it was felt that his ability to tell a serious story would provide a suitable counterpart to Patrick O’Troughton who tended to ad-lib everything from arriving at the studio to having lunch. They also liked the idea of using someone with a good sense of humour. Unfortunately Bob was not available on the required dates and so Newbalm came up with an alternative.

Now Red Fox would not at first appear ideal, but story editor Terrance Kicks was keen. It was only when Fox insisted on pretending he had a heart attack as his audition piece, and came up with the idea that the Doctor could talk to his dead wife in the TARDIS that Newbalm realised that this interpretation was far too serious for the direction in which he wanted to take the show.

One of the Production Managers on one of the last O’Troughton DOCTOR WHO stories suggested that perhaps he could play it, but Newbalm thought that his name was not hyphenated enough.

It was when Newbalm was sitting in his office, wondering who could play the Doctor, that he heard singing coming from down the corridor. His ears pricked up. Could this be his new Doctor?

He headed off down the corridor.

In a room at the end, was one of the stars of radio’s THE NAVY LARK. A well known and popular comic, someone loved by radio audiences across the country.

Newbalm just had time to greet Leslie Phillips when he found himself flat on his face, having been barged past by another actor. The tall, white-haired, beaky nosed man apologised and helped Newbalm up.

His ever-present cigar was crushed beyond repair.

The lisping fellow offered to do anything to make amends and Newbalm smiled. “Well, there is one goddam thing …” he said.

And that is how it all started. Jon Pardney got the role and the rest, as they say, is geometry.

Incidentally, we also found in Smoth’s collection of old crushed beer cans, a page from a script which appears to be an alternative regeneration sequence for the second Doctor into the third. It runs as follows:

SECOND DOCTOR: Zamie, Joey … Oh my word! Must get … get back to the TARDIS …

TIME LORD: That’s you stuffed mate.

SECOND DOCTOR: What’s happening … oooohhhh …


THIRD DOCTOR: … oooooohhhh. Oooh aarr me dear. Now what’s all this fuss and bother goin’ on … an’ goin’ on ‘ere then. Where’s old Worzel’s ol’ Doctor ‘ed then?

TIME LORD: That’s sorted him out then … anyone off down the pub?

There were many other gems in Herbert’s pile of hoarded rubbish.

Most was already well known and well documented, but there were some surprises. Like the fact that companion actress Elisabeth Slaythem was in fact married to both Ian Martyr and Philip Wycliffe.

That Tomb Maker was chosen for the part because no-one else applied and, as the Doctor was originally to carry a hod over his shoulder, he had his own costume.

That Jerry Nation tried to withhold the Daleks from his story GENESIS OF THE DALEKS on the grounds that Fozzie Bear would be a far better enemy. There were also some letters that suggested that Frank Oz had a hand in this, and that at one point, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie were all going to appear playing the Movellans in DESTINY OF THE DALEKS, which explains a lot …

All of which brings us to more-or-less the end of DOCTOR WHO on televison. Of course there were a few more Doctors, and at least one more Producer, but everyone agreed that it was never as good as the old days.

David J Howe