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.
“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 as 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 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.