John Wiles (1980’s)

John Wiles was one of the shortest-serving ‘Doctor Who’ producers, covering part of the William Hartnell era, but he had the task of ensuring the show’s continued success once the original team, including Verity Lambert, had left. Here, he talks to DWM about working with William Hartnell and Donald Tosh, and about how the show almost gave him a nervous breakdown.

“I was never happy with the role of a producer. A producer is really a desk person, deriving pleasure and satisfaction from battles in the office. This was very frustrating for me, as I am much more a writer and a director. I want to get down onto the floor, to make it work with the actors and the crew. I trailed Verity for about six months – sitting in on all her conferences and getting to know people like Dennis Spooner and of course Bill Hartnell and Terry Nation. Gradually I began taking over and getting more executive responsibility.

“Hartnell wasn’t as old as he thought he was. When he was with me, he treated himself almost as a seventy-five year old. It may well have been that he was physically not in the best of health, and so he could not learn lines. Consequently, studio days could be absolute purgatory for everybody. If Bill was in an unhappy state, it put everyone into a terrible state. I remember suggesting to Bill that we take the TARDIS to a planet where there is no gravity an no oxygen – where he would have to wear a spacesuit. You never heard such an uproar in all your life!

“Eventually the directors devised a code for me. They would turn to their Production Assistant and say ‘You’d better phone the designer’, which meant ‘Get John down here quick’, so that Bill wouldn’t know I’d been summoned. One day I got a call from the studio to say that all the studio dressers had come out on strike. This was a cataclysmic start to a day in the studio, where you depend on all your back-up all the time. Bill had simply offended his dresser, who had then complained and so the entire staff had walked out. This was on the one day you had to get an episode recorded. So there were those kinds of pressures all the time. Peter Purves was very supportive and helped as much as he could. I imagine it must have been very nerve-wracking for him, in that he never knew from one day to the next what was coming from Bill.

“I always got on with Donald Tosh, right from the very beginning. He was so out of the BBC mould. He really played up this whole thing of being something of an eccentric. He was the first person, for example, to start wearing the Beatle caps and the flowered shirts that came into fashion about then – and he loved to have people talk about him. But he was wonderfully mercurial in mind and very erudite. He knew his sources and had very firm ideas where he felt we ought to be going on he programme.

“The actual period of working could have been very fruitful. We were trying not so much to break the format but to develop it, I know that sounds very pompous but with my experience as a writer I felt we could do it. Primarily, (Donald Tosh and I) wanted to develop the programme and get it out of the somewhat childish rut it was in. It was the boundaries I think we wanted to extend the most – to push it, if you like, a little bit more towards adult science-fiction; probably less specified that it had been, so we could touch subjects that Verity Lambert and Dennis Spooner hadn’t wanted to touch.

“Brian Hayles’ ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ was a good indication of what we really wanted. So too ‘The Ark’, about the spaceship on its way to another planet. That story was mine, at least from the conceptual point of view. I had this idea of an enormous shop that was so big that you could get the whole of South London into it. You could drive cars, ride bicycles – the whole notion of forests floating in the air. It seemed a marvellous idea but it lacked story material so we gave it out to two writers (Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott) with whom I had a very enjoyable time working to shoot a storyline. They delivered some very good material, although in the end I think a lot of it was re-written by Donald Tosh.

“The other idea that Donald and I had was for a story we were thinking of calling ‘The Face of God’, whereby the TARDIS is stopped in mid-air by this enormous face which claims to be that of God himself. Of course towards the end it would be proven that all was not as it seemed – ironically I think ‘Star Trek’ finally did something very similar (‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’), and indeed they did a lot of ideas I would have liked to have seen done on ‘Doctor Who’, especially those where myth is combined with scientific achievement.

“The Daleks’ Master Plan was an enormous rock in the middle of a sea, and one on which any boat we were going to run would be submerged. It was immovable and right in the middle of this period, handed to me by Verity and Dennis. Donald and I virtually washed our hands of it, and it went on more or less without us in he hands of Dennis Spooner – who did most of the writing – and Duggie Camfield. I was nominally in charge, but I had absolutely no authority over it since none of it was my concern.

“We were fairly keen to find out way around this whole business of doing historical stories. Should the Doctor actually get involved with the main characters. Should he meet Catherine de Medici, or should he just get involved with peripheral events? I think in the end we got fascinated by the idea of him just getting involved on the sidelines, which he did in ‘The Massacre’. I know that doesn’t get us around the problem of ‘The Myth Makers’, where I think he did actually meet Agamemnon, Achilles and people like that. I can’t quite recall why the script ended up as jokey as it did. That was probably the Donald Tosh influence since ‘jokey’ was one of his favourite themes. I would probably have liked to have made it more serious but at the time I was more interested in testing the temperature of the water to see what we could do, and how far we could take the format.

“The feeling from above was that the show works now, and will continue run as long as Bill Hartnell plays the Doctor. So perhaps I was mad for wanting to change it. But our audience research had shown the Production Office that many adults watched the show, and so I felt we oculd do better than we were doing. I’m still proud of all the things we tried to do on ‘Doctor Who’, but the answer to the big question is that I resigned. I’m one of the few producers ever to resign from the BBC, and it was simply because I was heading very rapidly for a nervous breakdown and I decided that if I was going to have a breakdown, it might as well be in something for which I had respect, rather than this programme which, at that stage, I didn’t like.”

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