Julia Smith (1980’s)

Here’s Julia Smith talking about the two stories she directed in the 60’s. ‘The Smugglers’ was a historical story with the 1st Doctor, while ‘The Underwater Menace’ was a sci-fi tale that had already been turned down by Hugh David as unfilmable, given the budget they had. After working on ‘Doctor Who’, Julia Smith had a long and distinguished career, which included  co-creating ‘EastEnders’.

“William Hartnell was remarkable. As a director, you work out actors’ moves before going into rehearsal, in order to get a variety of shots, and I remember asking William Hartnell to cross to the TARDIS and press a particular button, and he went raving mad: ‘I can’t. If I do that, this’ll happen to the TARDIS and that’ll happen to the TARDIS!’. And he gave me a quarter of an hour’s dissertation of why he couldn’t press that button. I stood there, very young and very nervous, and took this broadside about the insanity of women drivers almost. It was obviously so real to him. He’d committed himself to the character and aquainted himself with all the machinery, which in those days was very much simpler than it is now. Compared with all the advances in technology over the years, William Hartnell’s TARDIS must now look prehistoric.

“Hartnell must be responsible in a very large degreefor the success of the whole thing – the mystique he surrounded himself with. He was pure, old-fashioned, theatrical actor-manager, with that resounding voice. But he did leave this feeling of remoteness, of being larger than everybody else. I think that’s a quality the programme lacks now; I can no longer believe in Dr. Who as a super-being. I know he wasn’t very well, and I treated him as I did John Slater on ‘Z-Cars’, who had a bad heart. You knew it was sensible to protect him and not demand too much of him. You didn’t make him run up and down stairs, or wade through rivers. I suppose that’s for example how they work with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. You just don’t stretch the old ones too far.

“For ‘The Smugglers’, we went down to Cornwall to do it, because I knew the area very well. At that time, you could still find long stretches of coastline without a house in sight. And also caves, which we needed for the pirates’ lair. It was set round about the Cromwellian period, I don’t remember exactly, and I enjoyed it immensely, because I’ve always been interested in the history of buildings. I had a bee in my bonnet, because when we had to find a pub exterior, I insisted we use an old barn, because pubs in those days were far simpler, more rustic. So we surprised some farmer by saying ‘Please, sir, can we use your barn?’, and we dressed it up and put a pub signpost in the middle of a muck heap.

“We had a wonderful cast. George A. Cooper, who ended up in ‘Grange Hill’ – he played one of the baddies, a pirate with a smooth bald head. It was very much a traditional children’s idea of a pirate. In those days, one made it more with children in mind, and I think, in my humble opinion, that that was maybe its strength. Now it’s much more sophisticated, but then I suppose children are, too. Then it was a case of booing the bad guy and cheering the hero, not today’s maniacal obsession with equipment and technicalities.

“We left Newlyn harbour and it seemed fairly calm in the bay, but when we got our father, or brother… it was drizzling and all the actors were sitting there with plastic capes on over their costumes, and the pirate captain, who was quite a dandy, had a hood over his beautiful ringlet wig. And this picture sticks in my mind of a bright green face peering out from the hood, being sick over port. Those are the sort of things one remembers – the giggles one got out of it.

“Patrick Troughton was quite obviously very different in both appearance and shape – he wanted to bring another quality to the part, a slightly humorous, muddle-handed element. I enjoyed working with him very much. I remember there were awful arguments about that time, about how Patrick Troughton should play the part; whether he should be allowed to play his flute or not, quite how Quixotic the character could be. We all put forward our suggestions. It was the first time anyone had grappled with the problem of changing the lead actor. Now it’s become a sort of convention, and Dr. Who’s have come and gone at quite an alarming rate!

“All the underwater sequences for ‘The Underwater Menace’ were a problem, but we got by with trickery. We used the tank at Ealing to do a certain amount of trick work, but I must admit, I remember less about that one. I know we had great fun designing mermaid-type costimes and that we had hundreds of letters from little girls, asking if they could have the costumes. ‘The Underwater Menace’ depended more on action and trickery than it did on acting and performance. ‘The Smugglers’ had depended more on the performance. As a director, you encounter better and worse scripts, and I might make some quiet comments about them, but you have to believe totally in what you’re doing, because you have to sell it to the actors and give them support, help and enthusiasm to go ahead with the project.

“When we were planning ‘EastEnders’, Tony Holland and I went to Lanzarote to be clear of phones and pressures. We wrote details of every character from their birth to the moment ‘EastEnders’ began. Each character has his or her own biography in a seventy-five page document, which is kept under lock and key in my office. We also wrote the first two years of storylines, which we have just worked through now. It was all there on paper from the start – Angie and Den’s marriage problems, Michelle’s baby, Den’s mistress Jan, Lofty’s marriage to Michelle and the cot death of Sue’s baby. I thought originally that if we reached an audience of 13m within two yars, then I would be happy. The fact that we got 20m within a few months was amazing. But being number one, we have to stay there. This is why I think the whole process of becoming national figures for the cast has been an enormous step. I knew the possibilities and talked to them all at length beforehand. But talking is one thing, and doing is another. But I never think we have it right. I’m always thinking of ways to improve the show. In fact, I find myself never thinking of the past or the present – only of the future.”

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