Archive for the ‘In the Beginning…’ Category

Verity Lambert (1983)

August 17, 2009

A short interview with Verity Lambert, shown on ‘Nationwide’ as part of the celebrations for hte 20th anniversary back in 1983.

Q: Verity Lambert was the first producer of ‘Doctor Who’ at 27. Did you ever dream that you were in on the creation of an institution?

A: No. It was commissioned to run for a year.

Q: What did you initially see the series being?

A: Well it was a series that was designed to appeal to eight to fourteen year-olds, which of course it didn’t, it appealed to everyone, which is wonderful. And the only way I could judge that, because I didn’t have any children, was to say well if it pleases me, hopefully it will please them.

Q: Looking back, what do you think is the magic ingredient that gives it universal appeal? I mean, thirty-eight countries watch it…

A: Well I think it’s the thing of being fantastical, really, never quite conforming to what you expect, and changing every four to six weeks a serial, so you change completely a locale.

Q: There’s a difference, though, between something that the audience can believe, and something that’s a bit of a send-up. The TARDIS, for instance, a spaceship that’s in the shape of a phonebox…

A: Well there’s a story behind that, because in fact it was supposed to change shape and blend in with its surrounding wherever, and of course it was found in England. But we couldn’t afford to keep changing it, so we stuck the mechanism and it remained a phonebox.

Q: In the end, they’re moral tales, aren’t they?

A: Yes, good and evil are very well defined and I think people like that.

Delia Derbyshire (1997)

August 15, 2009

Delia Derbyshire arranged the first version of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune, back in 1963. The music itself had been written by Ron Grainer on a beach in Portugal, but it was Delia’s job to put it all together. In this BBC Radio Scotland interview from 1997, she talks about recording the music for the show, and also about some of her later work.

I also recommend reading the full interview with Delia, in which she talks in more details about some of her non-‘Doctor Who’ work.

Q: What you achieved in the Radiophonic Workshop is something we should perhaps define for people who don’t understand the processes that went into making that kind of music.

A: It was only by gradually infiltrating the system that I was able to do music. I think you’d call that music, wouldn’t you? I did try to use electronic sounds wherever possible, and I think some of the sounds were bits cut out of other things after editing.

Q: You said that these pieces were put together using very simple devices, very simple compared to what’s available today, but at the time they were state of the art. One of the most famous pieces you did was the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune, tell me how you did that. I believe it was with some dozen or so oscillators?

A: Indeed, yes, we did have a bank of a dozen oscillators, but one couldn’t use them all at once. The first producer of ‘Doctor Who’, Verity Lambert, she had in her mind ‘Les Structures Sonore’, I don’t know whether you’re old enough to remember this group from Paris. Their music sounded extremely electronic, but in fact they were all acoustic instruments.

Q: Did they use glass rods in their music-making?

A: Yes, exactly, and so Verity Lambert couldn’t possibly afford ‘Les Structures Sonore’ from Paris, and because the Radiophonic Workshop was a below-the-line cost, she came to the Radiophonic Workshop, and the boss recommended Ron Grainer because he’d done something called ‘Giants of Steam’ there earlier. Ron saw the provisional titles, as usual something like a black and white negative, and he took the timings and went away to his private beach in Portugal and wrote the score. He came back with the score, with abstract things on, like wind clouds and sweeps and swoops, wind bubble, all beautiful descriptions, but with a very carefully worked out rhythm. It was very subtle, the way he wrote the rhythm, and so I got to work and put it all together. It was a magic experience, because I couldn’t see from the music how it was going to sound, it was Ron’s brilliant aural imagination.

Q: The original version of the theme is the one that has your own stamp of approval, I believe?

A: I’d say that, yes. I think every time a new producer came or a new director came, they wanted to tart up the title music, and they wanted to put an extra two bars here, put some extra feedback on the high frequencies, they kept on tarting it up out of existence. I was really very shocked with what I had to do.

Q: Where did the inspiration for ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’ come from?

A: This was a documentary programme about the Tourec tribe. The Tourec tribe are nomads in the Sahara desert, and I think they live by bartering, taking salt across the desert. In the piece, I tried to convey the distance of the horizon and the heat haze and then there’s this very high, slow, reedy sound. That indicates the strands of camels seen at a distance, wandering across the desert. That in fact was made with square waves on the bay of oscillators we just talked about. Square waves put through every filter I could possibly find, to take out all the bass frequencies, and so one just hears the very high frequencies. It has to be something out of this world.

Q: Your job tended to run counter to your formal training. You studied music, and also mathematics, and it was a time in the British musical establishment when you weren’t supposed to do that kind of thing, and there you were swimming completely against the tide.

A: You should see my last birthday card, it’s a lovely one from America with a whole shoal of fishes swimming with their mouths turned down, fishes in silhouette, and one fish swimming the other way.

Q: That’s you, is it?

A: Yes, well with a smile on its face, and printed on the card was ‘To an independent thinker’. (laughs) I think that sums me up, I did rebel against… I did all sorts of things I was told I couldn’t do, I think I’ve always been a very independent thinker. I must say that I go back to first principle when it comes to music, I go back to the Greeks, well, the simple harmonic series, I think that’s a very healthy thing to do for anyone.

Q: I’d like to turn our attention to the time you took the Radiophonic Workshop out of the BBC and worked on an album by the group ‘White Noise’.

A: I think my forte is, well apart from having an analytical mind to do electronic sound, at the opposite end I’m very good at writing extended melody, for which there was not really an opening at the BBC. So I met this guy, I was giving a lecture at Morley College in London, and he came up to me afterwards. He played the double bass, the same as I did, and he was already doing tracks for the Ballet Rambert, and we got together and started this album.

Q: ‘Firebirds’ from ‘White Noise’, with a touch of the original Russian folk music that Stravinsky used for his Firebird suite coming in at the end, from the album that came out in the late 1960’s on the Island label but has, I believe, been reissued in Sweden of late.

A: I don’t know when it was reissued, but yes, it must get played because I do get some royalties from it.

Q: Some of the music you made tended to be a little too challenging for producers at the time, and were rejected for their original purpose. That must have been fairly difficult to take?

A: (laughs) Yes. Indeed. And, let me see, I think… let us go back to the late 50’s, ealry 60’s… Dave Brubeck had done ‘Take 5’, and in about ’61 he’d done ‘It’s a Raggy Waltz’ in 7-time, so I thought fine, I’m into the numbers game, I’ll do 11-time and 13-time, continuing the series of prime numbers. But unfortunately I was told at the time that it was too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience. And about that time the choreographer Irving Davis happened to be walking down the corridor and his feet started tapping and he said “I want that”, and I said “No, you can’t, I’ve done it for the BBC” and so he implored me to do something in the same style, in 11-time and 13-time, for his dance group, which I did, in fact it was for the  Frankie Howerd and Cilla Black show, but it had to be scrapped for that but there was rather delicate music as the opener to the second act. That was their problem.

Q: Not a particularly clever bit of sequencing, I’d imagine.

A: No, and I didn’t have a television in those days but friends told me, by one means or another, it ended up being used as the backing for a deodorant commercial on television, which of course we were forbidden from doing. It was rejected by BBC2, and there it was on a commercial… I tell you what, I did films, I did the first electronic fashion show, I did feature films and art films, I don’t know what is up in my loft, it’s probably been eaten by the wasps and the mice.

Q: I did actually have a letter from you saying that you had a demo of one of your songs recorded by Anthony Newley, now that’s something I’d love to hear.

A: Yeah, I’d quite like to find it. He came to my little one-room flat above a flower shop in Maida Vale to hear the backing track he’d aske me to do. He said “Don’t put a tune on it, I’ll write my own tune, but I’d like a backing track, an electronic backing track”. He said “You’ll probably want to put on a tune, your own tune, just to make sense of it, but I’m not going to use it.” Anyway, he took it away and not only did he use it, he double-tracked it, he was thrilled to bits with it. He said, and I felt quite insulted at the time, “I’ll soon get you out of this place.” In fact, the people who’d driven him there were Joan and Jackie Collins.

Verity Lambert – Producer (2004 interview)

July 29, 2009

I don’t mind admitting that I’m particularly interested in the early days of ‘Doctor Who’, and how the basic idea for the programme was developed. In this interview from 2004, the show’s first producer, Verity Lambert, discusses how she came to be attached to what must have seemed a pretty strange idea – a strange man arrives on Earth in a spaceship that looks like a police box.

Verity Lambert – The First Lady of Doctor Who

For someone so inextricably linked with making hit TV shows, Verity Lambert has a surprising admission.

“I didn’t ever want to go into television,” she admits, “but it sounded more interesting than typing menus in French. Only marginally, though, because I knew nothing about it.”

Lambert’s first TV job was at Granada, “through someone my father knew there. It was very new and exciting, and I started before they went on the air. It was the start of ITV and I quickly became interested in it.”

Shortly after that, she started working at ABC Television, for head of drama, Dennis Vance, and then his successor, a Canadian producer called Sydney Newman. She left ABC in 1960 and went to America for a year, before returning to the UK with hopes of becoming a director.

“I couldn’t even get arrested in that area, though,” she says. “I gave myself a year to either move out of being a production assistant, or move out of television altogether.

“Within that year, Sydney Newman went to the BBC. He rang me up out of the blue and told me there was a new children’s series, and did I want to come and meet the head of department, Donald Wilson?”

The new series was Doctor Who, and in the summer of 1963, it was in a state of flux.

Absent-minded professor

“I was given a piece of paper that said there was a man who has come from we-know-not-where, with a spaceship he doesn’t know how to work,” says Lambert.

“I’m not sure it was called the TARDIS then. Has he stolen it? Is he on the run? Is he just an absent-minded professor? How did he and this thing get together?

“Initially there wasn’t a granddaughter. He arrived on Earth with this thing that looked like a police box on the outside and a young girl from the school wandered in to it. The teachers came to look for her, and they all took off.”

It was another five or six weeks after that initial meeting before Lambert took up the post of producer on the show. “In those days, you had to be cleared by MI5,” she recalls. “Or so they say. Maybe the BBC was always just incredibly slow moving!”

During that time the situation had changed. “Donald had already commissioned Anthony Coburn to write the first serial, and David Whitaker, who was wonderful, was appointed as my script editor.

“Mervyn Pinfield, who was a technical boffin and very good, was there to help me through the technicalities. Sydney had told me that Doctor Who was going to be pushing television to its limits. It had to be ‘state of the art’, whatever that was at the time. I had these two people I didn’t know to work with, but I felt very happy and lucky to have both of them.”

Prehistoric hysterics

But Lambert wasn’t so happy with the first Doctor Who serial, An Unearthly Child (aka 100,000 BC).

“Anthony Coburn had chosen to write about cavemen, who are not the easiest people to portray without everyone falling on the floor laughing,” she remembers. “It made it a very difficult one to start with. He also dug his heels in and refused to have Susan be anything but the Doctor’s granddaughter. Sydney wasn’t very happy about that, I know, but there was nothing that could be done.

“Also, we were faced with studio D at Lime Grove, which, far from being state of the art, wasn’t even contemporary. There were no lighting consoles, and it had old-fashioned cameras where the picture would peel off if you got too close. It was like going back to the Ark. But it was appropriate, seeing as we were doing a story about prehistoric men!”

As a 27-year-old woman, Lambert was an oddity in the BBC production team. “I had a director called Rex Tucker, who was very ‘old’ BBC,” she explains. “He would pat me on the head and say, ‘don’t worry about a thing, dear’. We didn’t get on at all.

“He was quite polite to me, but I knew he couldn’t bear me, and the feeling was mutual. He asked to be taken off the show, and I got Waris Hussein, which was hugely lucky. He was young, and a bit po-faced about Doctor Who at first, but he very quickly saw that there was incredible potential for a director. We didn’t have the sort of format that any other running serial had.

“Every time we changed the serial, we made our own rules. It was very creative for directors; if they wanted to be creative within the £2,000 a week budget we had, they had the opportunity. The costume designers, too, were so creative and clever within a very restrictive budget. Marco Polo was wonderful. It’s so sad that it’s gone. What we achieved within that ludicrous budget was incredible.”

Casting grouch

Lambert’s most important decision as producer was almost certainly the casting of William Hartnell as the Doctor. “There were two roles that I had seen him do that made me think he could do it,” she says. “One was in the TV series The Army Game, where he played an unbelievably opinionated and obnoxious Sergeant Major, and the other was the film This Sporting Life, where he played a talent scout, and was quite touching, sad and vulnerable.

“I rather liked the cantankerous bit for Doctor Who. That whole thing of not listening to people, getting them into terrible scrapes because he wouldn’t listen, and always thinking he knew best. But when he was being sweet, he was quite touching and vulnerable.”

Later companions to Hartnell’s Doctor recall him being very difficult to work with, and Lambert admits that he wasn’t the easiest person to get on with.

“He could be a cantankerous old sod, there’s no question about it. But you could always laugh him out of it. He had a brain tumour, which is what he died from, and I think it’s quite possible that it was starting to affect him then.

“I had one terrible row with him when he hadn’t learned his lines and was blaming everyone else. I went into the pub afterwards and he started on. I said, ‘Bill, I’m sorry. You have to learn your lines. It’s not fair on the other actors, and don’t blame them when it’s your fault.’ He was furious, but the next day he sent me a huge bunch of lovely flowers.”

Genesis of the Daleks

The next serial after An Unearthly Child was simply called The Daleks, coining a word that would quickly become synonymous with the show. But if Lambert’s boss had got his way, the story would never have made it to the screen.

“Donald Wilson absolutely hated the first Dalek story,” Lambert recalls. “The BBC had committed to do the show for a year. But, at the same time, there were various cut-off points, and a feeling that it wouldn’t last that long, especially after the first serial, which wasn’t an ideal one.

“After that, we had a bit of a problem, because Marco Polo was our next historical story, but John Lucarotti hadn’t finished writing it.

“The only serial we had that was finished was The Daleks, which David Whitaker had commissioned from Terry Nation. We thought it was great, but Donald called us in and said it was absolutely appalling and we weren’t to do it. We said there was a problem, because we didn’t have another serial ready, so he said that we should put it on, but that would be the end of Doctor Who. He told David to write a two-parter so they could finish after 13 episodes.

“We were flabbergasted, because we genuinely thought The Daleks was a good serial. And, when we put it on, it absolutely took over. Donald, to give him his due, called us in and said that we clearly knew a good deal more about this than he did, and he wasn’t going to interfere any more.”

Battling budgets

But this wasn’t the end of the fledgling series’ problems. Throughout her tenure as producer, Lambert battled with the studio and the budgetary restrictions, and, at one point, even had to fight off an attempt to remove her from the programme.

“I had been doing Doctor Who for about three months when I was called into Donald’s office,” she says. “I was told that, now I’d done it and it was on air, I was going to go and produce a twice-weekly serial about a council that was being made in Birmingham.

“I said I wasn’t, and Donald said, ‘You’re under contract to the BBC, not under contract to do Doctor Who. If we say you’re going then you’re going.’

“Doctor Who had barely gone on the air, and I certainly didn’t feel confident leaving it then, so I asked why they wanted me to go. The answer was that I wasn’t married, so it was easier for me to go and live in Birmingham than it was for any of the other producers!”

Lambert was not bound for Birmingham, however, and continued to produce Doctor Who for a total of 18 months. By the time she left, she had overseen the first cast changes, as Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) moved on, and Maureen O’Brien (Vicki) and Peter Purves (Steven) replaced them.

“I’d had fun, but it was time to do something else,” Lambert says.

“I preferred the historical stories, because they were really intelligent and very well done. I really liked some of the rather fanciful ones, too, though. They didn’t always work really well, like the Zarbi in The Web Planet, but I knew that we were doing things on television that you just couldn’t do anywhere else, and nobody stopped us.”

Too establishment

After she left Doctor Who, Lambert still kept an eye on the series she helped create.

“I loved the Cybermen,” she says. “And I watched a bit of Jon Pertwee, but it got a bit too establishment at that point for me.

“I did watch some of Tom Baker, because for me, obviously after William Hartnell, he was the closest. He had that unpredictability and sense of danger. I think that’s inherent with Tom Baker as a person, but it was very good for the character as well.

“I love Peter Davison as an actor, and I liked him as that urbane, cricketer, but, to me, the older ones are better. Tom Baker was quite young, but he’s an old soul, somehow. He gave it weight. Peter Davison and Colin Baker were almost too young, too attractive, and too lovely.

“Then, I’m afraid, it went right down the pan for me. The thing about Doctor Who is you’ve got to believe it. You’ve got to be able to suspend your disbelief, and with Sylvester McCoy it got so camp. It was ridiculous, and I think that’s why people stopped watching it.”

Lambert likes the possibility of Bill Nighy as the Doctor in the new series, and admires Russell T Davies. “He’s a very inventive writer, and very good,” she says. “He’s never been frightened of controversy, so, if he’s allowed to, he might come up with something very interesting.”

Will she watch the new show? “Oh, I expect I will,” she laughs. “How could I not?”

Source: Dreamwatch issue 116, May 2004

William Hartnell

July 28, 2009

There are relatively few William Hartnell interviews concerning his time on ‘Doctor Who’, and most of them are puff pieces intended for promotion. This interview is based on various comments pulled together, and as such is less of an interview and more of an overview of his comments on the programme.

“I was so pleased to be offered Doctor Who. To me kids are the greatest audience – and the greatest critics – in the world.

“It may seem like hindsight now, but I just knew that Doctor Who was going to be an enormous success. Don’t ask me how. Not everybody thought as I did. I was universally scoffed at for my initial faith in the series, but I believed in it. It was magical.

“Before the part came along I’d been playing a bunch of crooks, sergeants, prison warders and detectives. Then, after appearing in This Sporting Life, I got a phone call from my agent. He said, “I wouldn’t normally have suggested you work in children’s television, Bill, but there’s a sort of character part come up that I think you’d just love to play.

“My agent said the part was that of an eccentric old grandfather- cum-professor type who travels in space and time. Well, I wasn’t that keen, but I agreed to meet the producer.

“Then, the moment this brilliant young producer Miss Verity Lambert started telling me about Doctor Who, I was hooked. I remember telling her, “This is going to run for five years.” And look what’s happened.

“We did it forty-eight weeks a year in those days and it was very hard work. But I loves every minute.

“You know, I couldn’t go out into the high street without a bunch of kids follwing me. I felt like the Pied Piper.

“People really used to take it literally. I’d get letters from boys swotting for O-levels asking complicated questions about time-ratio and the TARDIS. The Doctor might have been able to answer them – I’m afraid I couldn’t! But I do believe there is life on other planets – and they know there’s life here but don’t have the technology to get through.

“Doctor Who is certainly a test for any actor. Animals and children are renowned scene-stealers and we had both – plus an assortment of monsters that became popular in their own right. Look at the Daleks. They started in the second series and were an immediate success.

“At one time (in late 1964) I thought we might extend the series and I suggested giving the Doctor a son and calling the programme The Son of Doctor Who. The idea was for me to have a wicked son. We would both look alike, each have a TARDIS and travel in outer space. In actual fact, it would have meant that I had to play a dual role when I `met’ my son.

“But the idea was not taken up by the BBC so I dropped it. I still think it would have worked and been exciting to children.

“Memories? There are so many. There was the occasion when I arrived at an air display in the TARDIS and the kids were convinced I had flown it there! On another occasion I went by limousine to open a local fete. When we got there the children just converged on the car cheering and shouting, their faces all lit up. I knew then just how much the Doctor really meant to them.”