Paddy Russell was the first female director to work on ‘Doctor Who’, and after the William Hartnell story ‘The Massacre’ she subsequently returned for Jon Pertwee’s ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ and Tom Baker’s ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock’. In this DWM interview, she talks about her ‘natural advantage’ with William Hartnell, her attempts to move a nailed-down dinosaur, and her (sometimes unpleasant) experiences with Tom Baker.
“I imagine it was John Wiles who asked me to direct ‘Doctor Who’, and then the departmental organiser who agreed. I didn’t know much about the show, is it hadn’t been going long, but I liked the scripts because I thought they were well written, which I may say didn’t always happen on ‘Doctor Who’. This was the original Doctor, whom I always thought the best. For all the difficulties – he wasn’t easy to work with – he never forgot that the Doctor wasn’t human and he had an edge that I don’t think any of the others have had since. He could be very frightening, mind you.
“I think some of his edginess was due to his health and the schedule – he wasn’t a strong man. But there’s something about ‘Doctor Who’ and obviously, though I’d heard the stories, I can only talk about those I worked with, there’s something about that part. You find almost inevitably in any long-running series that the regulars get starry-eyed. It happens inevitably. But it always happened faster on ‘Doctor Who’.
“It was a very dominant part – all right, there was usually an assistant running around, but running around just about describes it. The programme was the Doctor, and the part was very much what the actor made of it. Though I never did one with Patrick Troughton, I knew him very well as an actor and had worked with him a lot. His idea was to get as far away from Bill as possible, and I personally think he pushed it a little too far.
“It was interesting, because I talked to Pat about ‘Doctor Who’ much later when he was doing a classic serial for me. Having found him a superb actor to work with, and not at all difficult, I found it absolutely extraordinary when I heard that he began to give himself a very bad reputation on ‘Doctor Who’. We were chatting away one day and I said I couldn’t believe these stories, and he said ‘Well, I couuldn’t believe what I was doing. That’s in the end why I left. The part overwhelmed me and it almost gave me schizophrenia’.
“Going back to Bill Hartnell, I didn’t actually have any problems, but there was a reason for that. Bill was actually the Doctor only in the first and last episodes. Other than that he was the Abbot of Amboise. Therefore I had the natural advantage with Bill, with whom I got on very well, in terms of saying ‘The Doctor’s showing’ if I didn’t like what he was doing. That worked like a charm, because the Doctor couldn’t show. As for Bill and John Wiles, well, I was piggy in the middle, but as the director you often were.
“In a way, I still think ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ was the best one I did. It was the hardest to do – a complete beast and I suppose I accepted it for the challenge. The biggest difficulty was deserted London, which was of course essential to the story, which we got around by going out at five one Sunday morning, the 2nd of September 1973 and beginning the shoot at Westminster Bridge. I managed to get all the way round Tragar Square without a bus, and then we had to do several takes in Whitehall, which was a bit more difficult. We finished at lunchtime in Billingsgate, when there started to be too many people around for deserted streets.
“Then from the 23rd to the 29th we went all over the place to film – Southall Gasworks, the Central Electrcity Board at Ealing, Pickfords Warehouse and Wimbledon Common. We got a lot done, because crews were much lighter then, but we could also get away with much more in 1973 – the audience is more sophisticated now. I remember Jon Pertwee had a passion for this Whomobile, which he wished on the BBC. That was at Covent Garden, added for a brief appearance at the last minute.
“The thing about Jon was that he was always desperately interested in what he was going to wear, and a great deal less interested in the script! (laughs) He always looked superb, but the drawback was that he wasn’t very good on the lines – we used to write them all over the set. John bennett, who was playing the lead opposite him, had to play a very intense scene with Jon and he was very funny about it afterwards, telling me it was the only time he’d had a scene with another actor who never looked at him, because he was looking all round the set to see where the next line was coming from!
“It’s the only programme I’ve ever done – or want to do – where you whip through the performance as fast as you can, becuase you want to get to the effects, and they were sitting on your back and they took time. The models were beautiful and the model filming as such I left to Barry Letts to get on with, as I had quite enough on my plate. Sequences with actors, of course, had to be done in the studio. It was frantic – absolutely frantic.
“I always remember when we got to the last episode there was a sequence in it where Jon and the Brigadier were driving down a road and a dinosaurs was to appear in their way. I was doing their point of view and the reverse, and so I’d shot the location film with this in mind. But it had to go through the studio to actually add the model. The dinosaurs was standing one way, but for the other shot it needed to be turned around and we ran out of time. I was holding Barry Letts off with one hand as we were over-running. We really needed to switch this wretched model around, but of course you had to nail its feet down, otherwise they looked like they were floating. I said ‘We haven’t got time, it’s the tummy, nobody’s going to notice with a dinosaur’, and thank goodness, nobody did!
“Pyramids of Mars wasn’t a terribly good script. It was very much rewritten and rewritten. I was always very fussy about my scripts and I usually liked to work on them directly with the writer, but in that case the author, Lewis Greifer, just wasn’t around! I seem to remember his script was something of a disaster and Bob Holmes and I did an awful lot of work on it. It had got a lot of holes in it. My own reaction to any sscript was just to sit down and read it, vital, as that was the only time I could e ver judge it as a member of the audience. After that, I’d get too close. I was a terror for putting it off – I’d usually tackle it late at night.
“For that story, we went on location to Stargroves House, where Mick Jagger lived, from the 29th April to the 2nd May. I remember the poor mummies most of all – they really couldn’t see and had dreadful problems. If you remember, we had a chase down a fairly steep hil and the poor loves couldn’t see where they were putting their feet, added to which those costumes were incredibly hot and heavy. It was very carefully blocked, as I couldn’t tell what I was asking them to do was possible until they’d tried it. As they were on falling ground, they couldn’t look down, as the neck units were solid and anyway it would have spoilt the effect. We had to find them a path that was reasonable, so we got them to walk the ground slowly where I needed them for the shot and we watched very carefully to make sure there was nothing in the way that would trip them up when they tried to put a bit of speed on. They were very brave and they earned every miserable penny we paid them!
“My designer was a great help in getting the gothic look. I didn’t have a clear vision of the pyramid, that was all hers, and I remember those CSO interiors were very hard to get right. I also remember Lis Sladen in that white dress – ‘Pick up your skirts, Lis, they’re getting filthy!’ – ‘I don’t care,’ would come the reply.
“Tom Baker was easy to deal with at first, but the part went to his head completely. By the time I did ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, he was desperately difficult to work with. His input got totally out of hand. His attitude to his fellow actors was extremely difficult, his attitude to his director was extremely difficult, and his attitude to the crew was extremely difficult. For instance, it was always everybody else’s fault, and never Tom’s. His idea was to have that show to himself. He didn’t want an assistant, and he made their lives hell. Louise Jameson went through hell on that show, and that lady is a very good actress. Fortunately, she’s very tough, and she got a lot of support from everyone else. I found her excellent to work with, but Tom hardly spoke to her, and when he did it was usually something nasty.
“I remember one particular scene set in the rest room of the Lighthouse. It involved several people, and it involved Tom coming very fast through a doorway, followed by Louise. I’d set it up for the cameraman to stay with Tom and the cameraman wouldn’t see him coming, because of the curve in the set. Every time, Tom bolted through that door, and there was no reason for it! The action didn’t demand speed – there was nothing in the scene that said he had to enter like a bolt from the blue. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t come in normally. We did four takes, but the cameraman simply couldn’t hold him, because by the time he’d appeared, he’d gone. So in the end I said ‘Fine’ and told him to stay with Louise instead. And that’s what we did.
“We had to record up in Birmingham and they broke their backs on it. They pinched stuff from London and they did everything they could – I would never criticise them, though I insisted on bringing up a London effects guy to show them how. Everyone in Birmingham was made keen to get it right – in London, by this stage, nobody wanted to know about ‘Doctor Who’. It was a chore, it was bitty, it had gone on a long time and nobody loved it. But up in Birmingham, it was new.
“There was one effect to do with the monster that we were having desperate problems with. In the end, the Technical Operations Manager said to me ‘Can you leave it ’til after lunch and go on for now, while we try to sort something out?’. I went on and did other things, and eventually I became aware that there was a lot of scrabbling around going on behind me. I turned round and said ‘What are you doing?’. Two heads came up and said ‘Don’t worry’, so I thought ‘Fine’, and when we broke for lunch they said to me ‘Can we do this effect immediately after lunch, because then we can release the other studio?’. I said ‘Pardon?’, and he said ‘Well, to get it right, we’ve had to break into the other studio and use more cameras’. That was the length that Birmingham were prepared to go to – they’d been at the wiring to linl it through. But we never got the monster right. In none of our heads was there a real visualisation of it, and it wasn’t in the script. We had endless brainstorming sessions but we couldn’t get it right.
“I remember one instance that ticked me to death. I had cast a very young actor called John Abbott. Now, whatever we tried to do with them, the scripts were poor and John had a weak two-handed scene with Tom. Tom was having one of his difficult days and he flung round on John at one point and said ‘I don’t know how anybody can speak this rubbish’, to which John replied, ‘Well, I can’. Half the rehearsal room cleared at this point and Tom was silenced, which was quite unusual!”