Archive for the ‘Barry Letts’ Category

Barry Letts (1989)

October 10, 2009

Barry Letts, who died yesterday, is one of the most important figures in ‘Doctor Who’ history. Without the success of his and Terrance Dicks’ early Jon Pertwee seasons, the show would likely not have reached its tenth anniversary. When they took over in 1970, few in the BBC expected the programme to last more than one more year. Barry Letts remained involved with the show, in various capacities, for a decade, and then went on to a successful career directing, among other things, episodes of ‘Brookside’ and ‘EastEnders’. He was also a regular at ‘Doctor Who conventions. In this DWM interview from 1989, he talks about his entry into television, his time on ‘Doctor Who’ and his thoughts on the show’s cancellation at the end of the 80’s.

Starting Out

“When I got into television, I was just fascinated by the whole process of directing and whenever I could I was up in the gallery watching what was going on. I directed episode of ‘The Newcomers’, which I knew well because I’d written for it; I’d been a writer for television since 1960. Because I’d got on ‘The Newcomers’ treadmill, the BBC took up my contract and I stayed there for another 18 years. I’d been a director a month short of three years when I took on the job of producing ‘Doctor Who’, which was slightly unusual. To be honest, I think I was asked to do it be cause nobody else wanted it, as the programme was on the skids. They didn’t think it would last more than a year, but I was to try it and see how it went. I arrived in the office, Derrick Sherwin had already gone and there I was – Producer. They just threw me in at the deep end!

Producing Doctor Who

“The producer and script editor should be like a two-headed Beeblebrox. They should never speak with different voices. If they don’t get on, they shouldn’t be working together. The script editor has got to be the producer’s representative as far as scripts are concerned, and the producer should be involved in the scripts right the way through. I didn’t just hand it over to Terrance, we worked together. We did exactly the same (later) on the classic (BBC costume) serials (after Doctor Who). If we ever work together again, which I hope we do, that’s how we’ll work, although Terrance is now a producer in his own right, so we’ll work asĀ  co-producers. My wife and I just went over to Wimbledon to see ‘The Ultimate Adventure’ and of course to see Jon Pertwee, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Obviously, if you’re doing a stage show it’s done in a different way from a television show. It was great fun and I thought it went very well.

Terror of the Autons

“When we made ‘Terror of the Autons’, there were big leading articles in several newspapers complaining bitterly about what we’d done. We even had a letter from Scotland Yard about the policemen who turned out to be Autons, saying ‘Don’t do it again’. I think we did go over the top, but when you think of it, the most terrifying things are ordinary things that can’t be trusted. If it’s a monster, it’s a monster, you know where you are. But if a toy comes to life and tries to kill you, it’s not so funny. They kept a very close eye on us a fter that, and we made sure we didn’t do that sort of thing again, although things like ‘The Daemons’ came close to it.

The Daemons

“The Daemons was very much my baby because I wrote it with Bob Sloman. I would have liked to have directed it as well, although Chris Barry did a very good job. I’d worked on the programme for a year and had discussed with writers how Terrance and I thought a ‘Doctor Who’ story should go. I thought I’d love to have a go, to say this is the way a ‘Doctor Who’ story should be. We got very involved with thinking up demonic ideas, to the extent that we really became obsessive and started seeing Devil’s faces all over the place. I was pleased with the end result because I’d managed to do what I’d hoped – what we’d been asking other people to do. I’m very pleased and gratified that it means so much to so many people.


“Funnily enough, when Terrance and I did ‘The Sea Devils’, we worked with the Royal Navy and found them to be so co-operative and eager to work with us that we thought up a story about a frigate. We went to our contact at the Ministry of Defence and told him our idea, and he told us we were a bit late as the BBC were already talking about it. If we’d been a year earlier, we could easily have been the originator and producer of ‘Warship’.

Returning as Executive Producer

“When John Nathan-Turner took over ‘Doctor Who’, just as the series and serials departments combined, Graeme McDonald suddenly found that he’d got twice as many programmes to see, twice as many scripts to read, and twice as many people to look after. ‘Doctor Who’ had a new producer and a new script editor, neither of whom had done that job before. Graeme said to me would I, in effect, do his job for him. My job was similar to head of department: keeping an eye on the scripts, advising John, seeing how it went, and then see the final programmes and make any comments that might be helpful for the future. Executive Producer is a strange aniimal, it’s largely what you make of it. I was like a bit of continuity with the past, as I’d been on it before. I wasn’t in charge, John was the producer, I just wish now that I hadn’t put my name on it, as it wasn’t very fair to John as everyone thought I produced it.

“I know there was quite a campaign against John, and there are a lot of people who knock him. To the extent that I worked with him, we got on fine. What I think John has done as a producer, which has helped the show enormously, is that he’d got a great feeling for the show business side of television. ‘Doctor Who’ has become public property over the years, and John has picked up on this and expanded it enormously. An awful lot of the expansion of the programme in America was due to John’s efforts in publicity. That side of producing was something that I wasn’t very good at, and John is. You couldn’t work on the show for years unless you love it, and love the work you’re doing. Ultimately it becomes an expression of your personality. You wouldn’t do the job just as a way of earning money, because you don’t earn that much.

Almost adapting Narnia

“I later enquired about the rights to the Narnia books, but at that time they weren’t available. By the time they were, I was no longer adapting children’s novels – except for ‘Alice in Wonderland’. I thought the books transferred quite well; some of it was very good, although in parts it was pretty naff.


Chris Leach asked me to produced ‘Starwatch’ if the project got off the ground. I looked at it and was very impressed with what I saw. By the time they reached the pilot stage, Chris was quite happy with what he was doing. I said to him ‘You’re quite happy with all your decisions, so you don’t need me to rubber stamp them, I’ll bow out’, which I did, wishing them all the luck in the world.


Directing ‘Brookside’ was fascinating. It’s such a small operation where everybody knows everyone else. One works under tremendous pressure, and everyone does their damndest to get very high standards. Everyone always helps out working fast, efficiently and well.

The 1989 Cancellation of Doctor Who

“I know the BBC don’t intend to drop it completely, and I’ve heard that from the horse’s mouth. Peter Cregeen (Head of BBC Drama Serials) told me it was time it had one of its periodic rests, though this is in fact only its second. They’ve said they won’t do another season until they’ve discussed the situation and come up with an answer. Going over to independent production is just one of the options they can take. One of the problems is the changes within the BBC and the drama department. Peter Cregeen hasn’t been there all that long, and there’s been an awful lot of shifting around. At the moment it’s been somewhat mixed up and it’s just starting to settle down.

“Money is another problem. I was lucky with my timing – people were starting to buy colour licences, so the BBC’s income was increasing. Then things reached a point where the only way they could get more money was by increasing the licence fee, which has become a political thing. Then they started cutting back wherever they could. The licence fee is indexed to the cost of living and the rate of inflation. The inflation in the entertainment business, however, is higher, even more so in drama. The real income of the BBC has gone down enormously and is going to do down over the next few years. Everyone is trying desperately to find ways of keeping the quality with diminished money. What that means for ‘Doctor Who’ and other programmes – who can tell?”

Out of interest, click here to read the obituary, written by Barry Letts, for his friend and fellow ‘Doctor Who’ writer Robert Sloman back in 2005.

Barry Letts (Various)

October 1, 2009

Here are a few Barry Letts interviews, from various sources, edited together. He talks about working with Patrick Troughton, about the brief ‘Moonbase 3’ series he worked on with Terrance Dicks, and about the time Mr. Pastry almost became the Fourth Doctor.

“While we were making ‘Enemy of the World’, Patrick Troughton said ‘They’ve asked me to sign up for another year of ‘Doctor Who’ and I don’t know what to do. This once a week pace is really killing me’. We were so pushed for time, I had to use doubles for the long shots of Patrick, Frazer and Debbie on film because they were in London recording while we were down on the south cost. It was a ludicrous situation. So I said to Patrick, ‘Why don’t you say you’ll do another year, but then suggest that everybody would produce much better shows if they cut down the number of them and had gaps between each story to do the filming. I think he went back and suggested this, but of course by this time the next season was already down on the schedules and it was too late. Nevertheless, the planners decided it was a good idea and set it up for the following season, with the connivance of Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, with the idea of the Doctor being confined to Earth so they could make use of ordinary locations.

“There had been a change of attitude on the show that I picked up and encouraged strongly, which was to move away from science fantasy towards an emphasis on science fiction. They sound similar, but there’s a technical difference. Science fiction, as far as I’m concerned, is a very clear cut genre which in effect says: let’s take one assuption in terms of science which can possibly be extrapolated from present day tendencies, or which is outside present day knowledge. Then, given that as our promise, stick very closely to what would happen in reality and what is factually possible in terms of real world science. In other words, you can’t bend the rules as you can in fantasy ‘The Daemons’ came close to it, I must admit, but all the time – and it was the theme of the show – we were saying ‘Is it science, or is it magic?’. Everybody else was shouting black magic, but the Doctor was saying ‘No, it’s not, it’s science, the alien science of the Daemons’.

“Some people thought the changes were a pity. Verity Lambert, for example, felt that, as far back as the Troughton era once it had been shown where the Doctor came from – the story of Gallifrey and so on – the show lost a lot of its poetry and ambiguity; all the mystery that was so much a part of its beginning was now gone. This is certainly a point of view, but I think that although it had been a lovely show when it started, if it had stayed exactly the same it certainly would not have lasted so long. One of the reasons ‘Doctor Who’ has gone on for so long is that it has developed and gone in a new direction every so often.

“One of the first things I did editorially on ‘Doctor Who’ was to alter the ending of ‘The Silurians’. If you remember, it was the sequence where the Brigadier blows them all up. Now in the script, after the Brigadier has done this act, the Doctor says something like ‘What a terrible thing to do, think of all that they could have taught us, think of the science they’ve got that we haven’t’ and so on. To me that was wrong, and I had it changed to ‘But that’s murder. Just because a race has green skin doesn’t make them any less deserving of life than we are’. It’s an enormous help in the structing of stories to have a point or a theme to the whole thing.

“For a long time they just wouldn’t give us the go-ahead for Jon’s second season, and when they eventually did it was the end of January or later, which was very late for getting in the scripts. It was, I believe, Jon Pertwee who saved the show, simply because he was rapidly very popular. When we were casting Jo Grant, I told the agents I was after a youngish girl, preferably attractive, a very good actress with a strong personality and able to speak even the dullest lines with a vivideness. I saw about sixty girls, writing a two-hour audition piece for the six or so who were short-listed. Katy Manning was the last girl to arrive, resembling a nervous sparrow, puffing away at cigarette after cigarette and absolutely covered in rings. I told her it was far, far too late, but she begged to be allowed to do it, so I agreed, thinking that she certainly seemed worth it. And although we had some great girls up for it, including two ‘Avengers’ types, Katy was the one who got it.

“The Master was always planned as a regular, and Roger threw himself into it. He was especially keen on the idea of having a pair of very tight black leather gloves, which he had learnt were very sinister when he’d been playing Gestapo agents in other productions. He perfected a way of putting them on, and I have to say we were all very impressed.

“During ‘The Three Doctors’, poor Bill Hartnell couldn’t remember things from one moment to the next, because of his debilitating illness. We used cue cards which we plastered about for him to read from – something he managed very professionally. Then, while we were down shooting the quarry stuff, we sidestepped during one day’s filming and took that one shot of Hartnell picking a flower in his garden.

“We asked Frazer Hones to come into the studio for the last episode, which was recorded in January. All it was, was for him to appear in the final part where the Troughton Doctor was saying goodbye – we wanted Jamie to materialise in full kilt and say something like ‘Doctor, will you hurry up’,and then to promptly vanish with Patrick. It was just a gag cameo, really, and we left it open for Frazer to do it, right up until about three days before we went into studio. Unfortunately, he just couldn’t fit it in with his commitments to ‘Emmerdale Farm’.

“Terrance Dicks and I, before ‘Day of the Daleks’, had endless discussions about this whole question of the time paradox; what happens if you go back in time and shoot your grandfather before he’s met your grandmother? So, from that, you can’t be born because your father was never conceived, and if that is true then how could you shoot your grandfather? And if you didn’t shoot him, then you would be born, in which case you would go back in time and shoot your grandfather – and so on… In a word, time travel is impossible and so we had to think of reasons that would make it seem possible. This was particularly true where you had action taking place in two parallel times.

“If you remember, in ‘Day of the Daleks’ the guerillas were coming back from the future to the present day in repeated attempts to blow up a peace conference. While this was going on, the Doctor had gone ahead into the future to try and sort things out there, and so you had action going on in two places at the same time. Now why, we wondered, should these events be going on co-incidentally? Why if you travel forwards in time for a day and then come back, do you find a day has elapsed in your time too? It isn’t necessary at all – you could come back the day before if you wanted, surely?

“This difficulty really got on top of us and, having had it at the forefront of our minds for so long, we eventually had Jo Grant say to the Doctor ‘Why don’t we go back to the day before and get it right this time?’, to which there is no real answer. So what the Doctor in fact said was ‘Ah well, that’s the Blinovitch Limitation Effect’, and when Jo said she didn’t understand, the door opened and in came the guerillas. So we never explained the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, but it provided us with a way out of time paradoxes.

“Visual effects saw in the script for ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ the requirement for a twenty foot monster which they then made in the customary way. They produced a man-sized dinosaur suit which was so heavy when worn that in order to support the weight of it, the head had a ring bolt through it, fixed to a line attached to the ceiling. Therefore the actor inside could only move within the narrow radius allowed by the length of the line. After that, they used CSO (Colour Separation Overlay) to make the creature seem large beside Jon Pertwee, and it wasn’t until a while afterwards that it dawned on everyone that there was no need to have gone to all the time and expensive of building a full-sized suit They could have achieved exactly the same effect using a puppet two feet tall, operated by rods.

“The Master’s departure was screwed up. We were all very, very sad that the ending went wrong – if he had been coming back, it wouldn’t have mattered. What was supposed to happen was that the great blobby monster you saw in the quarry was supposed to appear in the corridor. The Master is clearly seen to escape in the confusion. But because we ran out of time in the studio, we never got the shot of the monster, so there was no explanation of why the Ogrons were rushing around like demented schoolboys and why the Master just vanished. The phrase for what happened is ‘complete cock-up’.

“When we were casting Sarah-Jane, I told everybody that I wanted somebody who was attractive, a very good actress, with a very good personality in her own right, and cheap. It became something of a joke among the agents and so on, although I’d specified the same before Katy arrived. One of my colleagues, Ron Craddock, was the producer of ‘Z Cars’ and he came to me one day and said ‘Why not see this girl Lis Sladen, I’ve used her twice in ‘Z Cars’ over the last year, in two completely different parts, and she was superb in both’. I already had a shortlist, but Lis came in and got it – ironically, the last girl I saw, just like Katy.

“Terrance Dicks and I got offered the chance to do a more adult science fiction serial, partly because I had wanted to leave by the end of the previous season and was persuaded to stay with this as the carrot, and also because we were looking for a direction in which to go after ‘Doctor Who’. It was clear that our term on the show was coming to an end anyway, so if ‘Moonbase 3’ had taken off that’s what we’d have gone on to. It didn’t work because we never had enough time, what with working in ‘Doctor Who’ at the same time – we just didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It was also the reason why I hadn’t directed for one whole season, and why there was a gap between ‘Carnival of Monsters’ and ‘Planet of the Spiders’. Normally I’d have directed ‘The Time Warrior’.

“Lennie Mayne treated ‘The Curse of Peladon’ just the same as if he’d been working at the National or the Royal Court. It was as real to him as that, and it enraged him if he thought someone was slacking or taking on the attitude that this would do because it was ‘only Doctor Who’. After he’d finished work was a diferent matter. He’d have a few and laugh along with everyone else.

“I don’t think ‘Doctor Who’ should be a vehicle for any form of overt political viewpoint, however laudable. I think our audience was intelligent enough to make the connection, it was still there to be made. The real reason Bob Baker and Dave Martin didn’t like the changes to ‘The Mutants’ was more to do with the fact that writers rarely like change, full stop. All that CSO was in there to stretch our resources to the utmost. I wanted us to take the technology by the throat, and not the other way around. It was hard on the actors and it was certainly hard on the production teams. We used to sweat a lot of blood over the CSO, but it gave us what we’ve got today and there’s no need to apologise for that.

Mr Pastry

Mr Pastry

“(Regarding a replacement for Jon Pertwee) Richard Hearne was one of those actors with a magic touch. Indeed, for years following his celebrated ‘Mr Pastry’ series he would open fetes and carnivals as Mister Pastry. I invited him along for discussion about his possibly being the new Doctor, but we established quiet clearly that this was impractical as his interpretation of the part would be to play it like Mister Pastry: a doddery old man.

“If it had been an older man, then Harry would have been on-hand to do the physical stuff like fight scenes. As well, I had a fondness for the ‘Doctor Who’ stories which had a boy and girl companion, like Ben and Polly, or Jamie and Zoe. I thought the addition of a secondary male character would alter the style of relationships we had established with Jon’s stories. It goes back to our initial uncertainty over the new Doctor’s age.

“Because the audience has not yet accepted the new Doctor, their sympathies are with the characters they know and they are identifying with these characters as they react to the new and eccentric Doctor. In ‘Robot’, the old characters – the Brigadier, Benton and Sarah – are there to reassure the viewing public that they’re still watching ‘Doctor Who’, and it was a fun situation to see their looks of shocked horror as they tried to come to terms with this new, wildly erratic figure.”