Sydney Newman was, for many, the creator of ‘Doctor Who’, even if there were so many people involved in the show’s conception that many others could stake a claim for being involved. It was Newman, however, who jotted down the basic idea of a time-travelling old man in a police box, whisking two teachers and a young girl (eventually changed to become his grand-daughter) off on a journey through time and space. In this DWM interview, he talks about the early days of ‘Doctor Who’, starting with a brief from the BBC to come up with something to stop people switching to ITV after the football results…
“Sports had a tremendous audience and then, suddenly, there was a dramatisation of Dickens or ‘The Water Margin’ or something, and everyone tuned into ITV or switched off. So my bosses thought maybe I ought to come up with another kind of drama that would hold the sports-loving audience. I moved the classic serial to Sunday afternoons and dreamed up ‘Doctor Who’ to replace it.
“Doctor Who was really the culmination of almost all my interests in life: I wanted to reflect contemporary society; I was curious about the outer-space stuff; and also, of course, being a children’s programme, it had to have a high educational content. Up to the age of forty, I don’t think there was a science fiction book I hadn’t read. I love them because they’re a marvellous way – a safe way – of saying nasty things about our own society. I’d read H.G. Wells, of course, and I recalled his book ‘The Time Machine’. That inspired me to dream up the time-space machine for ‘Doctor Who’. It was a great device which allowed my audience to be taken to outer space, to elsewhere in the world today, or back into the past.
“I then dreamed up this senile old man of 740 years of age to be the running character. He has fled in terror from another planet in this spaceship which lands on Earth in the form of a police box. He’s wandering around in the London fog when he’s met by two school teachers who are walking home one of their pupils. They help him to what they think is his house, but it’s a police telephone box in a junkyard! But inside, it’s really a vast spaceship! However, this dim old guy doesn’t know how to operate the machine, presses the wrong button and they take off. And that was the idea.
“Donald Wilson thought it was ‘possibly’ a good idea. Although a Scot, he was frightfully English – very correct, pip-smoking, everything but a handkerchief in his sleeve! He was very cautious and wouldn’t commit himself. I loved that man, because he was so different from me. He was very cultured, tall and lean; and he was always amused by me, because I was so crude.
“I remembered this extremely bright girl called Verity Lambert, who had worked for me as a production assistant at ABC. I called her up and said ‘D’you want to be a producer?’. She was only a personal assistant and said ‘Of course!’. I gave her a two-page memo on ‘Doctor Who’ and said ‘Can you do it?’. She said ‘Yeah, okay’ and she did! I’d give a million bucks if someone could find that memo.
“Verity was the one who realised it all, although I had a hand in the casting. I helped her quite a bit in the beginning, because she was inexperienced as a producer, and she was frightened to death coming to the BBC. However, she had worked with some of my best directors – like Ted Kotcheff and Philip Saville – so she knew the production grass roots extremely well. And she turned out to be a real winner. I’m told there were quite a few rumblings within the BBC, because she’d never been a director, and because she was a girl. She was tough, good-looking and stubborn. If she didn’t like something, she came out honestly and said so. It wasn’t ‘I don’t know why I don’t like this’, it was ‘I don’t like it because of X, Y and Z, it should be A, B and C’. She was very positive, as a good producer has to be.
“We shot a dummy run and it didn’t work out right because Bill Hartnell’s characterisation was a bit too nasty and I thought he’d put off the viewers. Also, I wanted one character with whom my children’s audience could identity, and who was a stranger to Dr. Who, but somehow it turned out that Dr. Who was her grandfather. And I never wanted that – ever! I’ve never forgiven Verity for that!
“With the educational aspect in mind, I wrote in my memo that the outer space stories must be based on factual knowledged about outer space. Also, by going back in time we could bring history alive for the young, having ‘Doctor Who’ and his earthlings on the shores of Britain when Caesar landed – that sort of situation. Being a real aficionado of science fiction, I hated stories which used bug-eyed monsters, otherwise known as BEM’s. I write in my memo that there would be no bug-eyed monsters in ‘Doctor Who’. And after a few episodes, Verity turned up with the Daleks! I bawled her out for it, but she said ‘Honest, Sydney, they’re not bug-eyed monsters – they’re human beings who are so advanced that their bodies have atrophied and they need these casings to manipulate and do the things they want!’. Of course, the Daleks took off and captured everybody’s imagination. Some of the best thing I have ever done are the thing I never wanted to do. It’s true! It’s worked out that way.
“At the BBC, every Wednesday morning there was a meeting called the Weekly Programme Review, where all the departmental heads got together to talk about the previous week’s programmes and decided what was wrong and what was right about them. Some of the departmental heads voiced criticism that the Daleks were too frightening. I didn’t agree with them, so I protested. The late Huw Wheldon, who as Programme Controller was chairing the meeting, fortunately agreed with me. ‘Nonsense,’ he roared out, ‘I’ve got two little kids and they put waste paper baskets on their heads and run around yelling Exterminate! Exterminate!’, and of course that calmed everything down.
“In ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, the Doctor and his friends arrived in some world where they’re playing chess, or something. It was wonderful and very intellectual, and thank God it was attractive to watch. I don’t think anyone understood it – I never did!
“Patrick Troughton was unhappy being asked to produce a carbon copy of Hartnell’s performance, so I suggested that he interpret the role like a ‘cosmic hobo’. But still, the Doctor must never know how to operate the TARDIS. The earthlings should always want to get back home, and the Doctor should always intend to take them home, but they mistakenly end up somewhere in the past of in the future.
“Someone once told me that there was a question in Trivial Pursuit, ‘Who created Doctor Who?’. You turn the card over and it says the answer is Terry Nation! I wrote a rather stinging letter, demanding the destruction of all the Trivial Pursuits that had that mistake in them, hinting at some fabulous compensation that they should give me for demeaning my contribution to (laughs) world culture! I got lawyers and everything, but I didn’t get anywhee. They just said they would withdraw the card. I even wrote to Terry Nation for his support, and he sent me a very nice letter back.”