This is probably one of the most notorious interviews in the history of ‘Doctor Who’. Former script editor lets John Nathan Turner have it with both barrels in a scabarous encounter first published in issue 97 of ‘Starburst’.
Q: Let’s start with the most immediate thing – you’ve recently left Doctor Who.
A: Well…I was getting very fed up with the way Doctor Who was being run, largely by John Nathan-Turner – his attitude and his lack of insight into what makes a television series like Doctor Who work. This had been going on for a couple of years and after being cancelled and coming back almost in the same manner as we were before…the same sort of pantomime-ish aspects that I so despised about the show. I just think it isn’t worth it.
Q: So, what exactly was the effect of the cancellation?
A: We were rather stunned. We didn’t know what was going on. I don’t think anyone’s really got to the bottom of why it was cancelled. I don’t honestly think that. Michael Grade can correct me, we were simply taken off because they thought we were awful. If we were really that bad I can’t believe he would have kept the same team. Grade did criticise us, and when he talks about the production team he’s basically speaking about the Producer and the Script Editor who are the team that are always there. I don’t whether he was just referring to us.
Q: What was the first thing you knew about the cancellation?
A: John had been told on the Monday that we were being cancelled, and he told me and Anji-Smith, the Production Associate on the following day. He wanted us to know before it was made public, but as it transpired the whole department knew anyway.
Q: There were no reasons given?
A: Other than it was thought the show needed resting, re-thinking. We were told we were going back to 25 minutes, which was Michael Grade’s decision, and that more comedy was wanted. I must admit that I didn’t understand Grade’s not about comedy, last season we had three very comic stories (‘Vengeance on Varos’, ‘Two Doctors’, ‘Revelation of the Daleks”). It was a pity that two out of the three stories were poorly directed.
Q: There’s a certain something, a sparkle, missing from the direction.
A: Most of the directors on Who haven’t got the lightness of touch necessary. And if they’ve got it they don’t hang around Who for very long because of the budget restrictions, working atmosphere, quality of the scripts and so on. The show isn’t that enticing to a rising director.
Q: What do you mean by working atmosphere?
A: Well, the constant thing of having to do everything for tuppence. Interference does go on. John can become so unpleasant to someone he’s employed, such as his director. The likes of Graeme Harper will not come back to Doctor Who if they’ve got something else to do. People like Peter Grimwade, who I suppose is the only other director of any note who has come out of Who since John has been producer, says he wouldn’t work with John Nathan-Turner any more – and I don’t think Nathan-Turner would employ him.
Q: There was some row, wasn’t there?
A: It was a lunatic situation…Grimwade directed a script I had written called “Earthshock”. He made the story work well, so John decided he could direct ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ (in my opinion the worst Doctor Who story ever written. (As an author I am entitled to say that!) Peter had been booked and then there was a strike. So the story was cancelled. Grimwade said “Fine, well obviously we can’t do anything about that. If I’ve not got anything to do I’m going to have lunch and go home”. So he took me, remember I was an author as well as the script editor on the show, and his Production Manager and one or two other members on the team. I think there were about six of us. We went to the Television Centre for lunch – I mean so exciting, it’s unbelievable – only to find when we got back that John Nathan-Turner had been shouting and screaming all over the building “How dare they all go off to lunch together,
and not invite me”.
Q: Oh, no!
A: It’s true! Yes he was furious and it was so silly. “How dare they? I am the one who does the hiring and firing around here – how dare he take…” He took exception to my going because he said “How dare he take my Script Editor to lunch, and not me”. He took that absolutely as an out and out insult, and that was a contributing factor to why Peter was never invited back.
A: Pathetic isn’t it? It’s mind-numbing. One of the two half decent directors he’s had on the show he will not use because of a silly, stupid incident like that. I think he’s a very paranoid individual. He probably feels that I’ve been slagging him off all over the place since left…which is not true. There were lots of silly events before I did leave. When I left, I was
writing the last episode. We had talked about this ending of the season and he had agreed, in principle, to what was wanted – a hard cliff-hanging thing. I was surprised he had agreed, knowing he does go for these pappy pantomime sort of endings. I went ahead and wrote the last episode as I had discussed it with Bob Holmes and as I had with John, but the episode went in and, and John said “Yes, that’s all fine, fine. What about the end? I don’t like the end, we can’t go out on that end”. He reneged on but he had agreed. He wanted the “walk-down”, happy pantomime ending. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s the man. He knows so much, he has the show cancelled and is openly criticised by the Controller of BBC 1 television.
Q: A lot of fans criticise John for his America fixation. How much do you think
that going off to conventions affected the time he had available?
A: When he goes to these Conventions he has to get permission from the head of department to do so. I gather that usually goes through on the nod. At first, it didn’t encroach upon his work in that way. He started going to more and more of them. A lot of them would be at weekends. What did become apparent though, if he’d gone off for a weekend Convention to America, he would come into work on Monday straight from the ‘plane. It was as though he wanted to go to the Conventions, but wanted to show everyone that nothing was distracting him from his duties as producer, so he would do the lunatic thing of coming back Sunday/Monday morning, coming into the office, and just shutting the door and going to sleep. He is obsessed with the American fans. I gather that he sanctions who can go to America and who can’t. It’s very difficult obviously to control actors who are no longer working on the show, and obviously the fan Conventions want the leading actors and the companions. But you’ll find that writers were never invited. I mean someone like Robert Holmes who’s written God knows how many stories, has been involved in it since Patrick Troughton’s days, edited the show for three years, a man very experienced in writing for television who would have had a great deal to offer any audience who would bear to listen. Men like him were never invited. Only two directors ever went that I was aware of.
Q: When John originally started he said he was only going to do it for a short
time anyway. He would only do it for three years or so.
A: I think the main draw for him apart from the fact that he has got his fingers in so many pies is the income from the Conventions in America, which I think is quite a lot of money. I think that is something he is reluctant to give up.
Q: It has also been said that he doesn’t like any of the fans working for the
A: Well, he’s obsessed about keeping everything secret. But the one thing that again aggravates when someone takes a 2.5-3 hour lunch break every day is that you know that you’re not going to be able to speak to him between that time. There’s no two ways about it. He will come back if something has come up, but it’s a ritual. He trots out at 12:30 and comes back after closing time…
Q: I believe there have been times when you’ve urgently wanted to speak to him
and he’s been on the ‘phone?
A: Oh, yes…that got rather silly and unpleasant. He went through a phase a couple of years ago of spending a lot of time on the ‘phone I think to America, certainly to the various Convention organisers – most of them are in America – and we had the lunatic situation one day. I was standing outside the office, I needed to see him and two of his directors needed to see him, and he’d been there chatting on the ‘phone, as far as the Secretary was concerned,
for at least an hour. It just wasn’t once, it was often, and with people waiting to see him – waiting to make the g*dd*mn show he was supposed to be the producer of. It was anything that would come up – I mean he’d rather read a manuscript from W.H. Allen, or spend hours ‘piddling’ about with some crappy piece of merchandising from Enterprises than willingly become involved in talking about what we were doing. I can’t understand it.