Derrick Sherwin (1990’s)

Derrick Sherwin was, at various points in the 1960’s, script editor, assistant producer, and producer of ‘Doctor Who’, covering the late Patrick Troughton era, and in this DWM interview he talks about the job of keeping the show alive at a time when its existence was threatened. He commissioned Robert Holmes’ first script for the series, was instrumental in conceiving the Earth-bound aspect of the third Doctor’s era, and even tried to buy the rights to produce the series independently when it was cancelled in the late 1980’s.

“I was Assistant Script Editor to start with. Peter Bryant, having come over from BBC Radio, was Script Editor prior to taking over from Innes Lloyd as Producer, so I went in to assist him while he was genning up for that job. It was just before Christmas, and I was landed with a great pile of scripts that had to go into production immediately after the holiday break. The director had sent them back and said he wouldn’t do them. Pat Troughton had thrown a wobbly – they really were appalling! Thank goodness I can’t remember whose they were now, because I would hate to denigrate the author now! So I spent the entire Christmas, apart from Christmas Day, rewriting the first two of three episodes of that story, to get it into some sort of reasonable shape. That set the pattern for the first three months, because frankly the writers had been fairly badly biefed and fairly sloppily looked after. It was a real baptism of fire.

“I found Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln (writers of ‘The Dominators’) tough guys to work with. They were aggressive writers, insofar as they were very difficult to convince that they had made a wrong move if something needed adjusting or a piece of dialogue needed changing. They fought for every dot and comma. It was not a happy relationship: they hated my guts! We lost one of the episodes of ‘The Dominators’, don’t ask me why, I think we just ran our of money, having spent a lot on the Quarks and the outside shooting.

“I had commissioned Peter Ling to write ‘The Mind Robber’, but when his scripts came in they just didn’t stretch to the required length. The only way to fill the slot was for me to write an extra episode but, because we had already spent all the money, I had no sets, no visiting  characters and no new monsters. All I had was a white cyclorama, lots of smoke, the three regulars, the TARDIS prop and what was left of the tatty TARDIS interior set – and out of that I had to construct an episode! I also used some old robot costumes that I found dumped in a storeroom.

“The series had become very fanciful and gone heavily into monsters from outer space, which I found very tedious and unbelievable. The only reason everyone watched was to see what the latest monster was like – whether it had got fur on or a silver head or one eye at the back of its ear, whatever. The scripts weren’t going anywhere, the viewing figures were dropping, so I sat down with Peter Bryant to work out what we could do about this. I said the only thing I could think of was to look back, see what had been succesful in sci-fi in the past and try to learn from that.

“I went to the archives and managed to dig out some episodes of the very first series of ‘Quatermass’ – the writer, Nigel Kneale, was my neighbour at the time! We screened them and the production was so appalling that we found them hysterically funny. We rolled about laughing! But what the producers had been trying to do – and what ultimately they achieved in ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ – was to get some reality into it. So I said that this was the solution, that what we had to do with ‘Doctor Who’ was to forget wobbly jellies in outer space and create some reason for bringing the stories down to Earth.

“We couldn’t do this with just the Doctor and his two companions, we had to have some other means, so that’s why I came up with UNIT. I sat down and wrote a couple of pages about this special taskforce, specifically with members from all nations, which had been set up to investigate funny things happening in space or the possibility of UFO’s or whatever. It was basically an army intelligence unit with special powers and, on some occasions, special weapons.

“We were going from black and white to colour, which was an expensive exercise, and we had to have a run of productions that we could afford. We couldn’t keep on creating spaceships and monster suits all over the place and going out to the back end of nowhere to film alien planets – it just wasn’t on with the financial restrictions that existed. We were aware that Pat wanted to leave. He’d had a hard slog – we were doing forty-two episodes a year in thos days – and he was very, very tired. He’d been getting pretty shoddy scripts, too, and he was a perfectionist, he really wouldn’t say poor dialogue. Consequently he was becoming very edgy towards the end, and there were a few rows. Eventually he decided that he’d had enough. The Doctor had changed before, so we knew that we could change him again, and that’s what we did.

“I certainly wasn’t aware of any desire on the part of the BBC hierarchy to finish the series. There was always the possibility at the end of a season that it might not be renewed for another year, but that was the same for any show, whatever it might have been. I’m very pleased that Terrance Dicks stayed on ‘Doctor Who’ for as long as he did, because he has a very clear and very analytical mind, which a show like ‘Doctor Who’ needs. At the beginning, I didn’t feel he wrote the best dialogue in the world, and didn’t know too much about characterisation, but he could analyze stories well and plan sequences of events that made sense. In other words, he was not so much a dramatist then, as most writers are, but he was a damn good story-teller.

“Bob Holmes I brought in to do four episodes initially because he had written an excellent story in the form of ‘The Krotons’. That had been a short story when it started off, and Bob had brought it into me. I suggested he should expan it into something no longer than four episodes, and he produced some excellent scripts from that. I felt it could have been better directed, though.

“Everything should be dictated by the strength of the story writing. You should never do a run of just two. ‘Doctor Who’ is essentially a serial, and that almost automatically suggests lengths of anywhere between four and eight weeks. Basically, I believe the average should be about six. ‘The Invasion’ was a good idea from Kit Pedler, and it had a lot to recommend it as a story. So I simply broke it up as I saw fit, and there was easily enough material there to give it legs for eight parts.

“The War Games was a monster which, which hingsight, should not have strung out that long because it really hadn’t got that much story to it. You were able to extend it simply by adding an extra war game every other week, but as a developing saga it really lacked running characters, enabling it to hang together. It was all bits and pieces, with different people with different people playing out different war games. That was quite a nice idea, but it never, in my opinion, worked properly. I think it was under-written. It was intended from the beginning to be an epic, but it hadn’t really got the legs.

“We cast Jon knowing that, being him, there would be humour. He couldn’t do anything without seeing the quirky, funny side of it. We didn’t want it to go over the top, though, so we were a bit nervous about casting somebody who was essentially a light entertainment man. It was Jon who said ‘Look, I’ve got a reputation as a comedian, but I don’t want to play it like that. I want to play the character straight’, and that clinched the deal for us.

“There was a BBC strike during ‘Spearhead From Space’ and the studio cameramen were working to rule. I’d written a ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’ that was being done, an all-studio production, and it was suddenly switched in the schedules to be recorded that week because it needed relatively little direction and the cameras couldn’t go far wrong. On ‘Doctor Who’, though, it threw us out of kilter as it meant we couldn’t go into the studio. This was Jon’s first story, remember, and of course he was in a dead sweat! I said ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, I can mount the whole thing on film, given a fortnight or three weeks run up’. So I discovered some BBC training premises out in the country, a lovely old building, where we could find every location we needed. I took everyone down there and we shot the whole story on 16mm film.

“Jon was terribly nervous about doing the series – he had never done drama before – and I told him that if anything went wrong we could simply stop and do another take. The fact that he could treat it like a film reassured him, and then he got used to it. It finally gave him the confidence, because he found the character.

“The actor we’d originally cast (as the soldier in the underground car park) couldn’t act So I said ‘Get that uniform off – I’ll do it myself!’ It was a stupid little part which didn’t even have a line, but the guy couldn’t get it right so I threw him off the set.

“During the time Michael Grade was at the BBC, I heard so many rumours that he was going to take ‘Doctor Who’ off that I wrote to him and said ‘Look, obviously the BBC can’t afford to do this and doesn’t now where to go with it, so I will take it off your hands, produce it independently, finance it independently, and sell it back to you as a package’. He turned me down, saying that he’d got plans for the series. Then, when Grade left, I wrote to Peter Cregeen about it. So I’ve now offered to buy ‘Doctor Who’ out twice!”

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