Archive for the ‘John Nathan-Turner’ Category

John Nathan-Turner (1987)

November 2, 2009

Here’s John Nathan-Turner’s guide to season 24, in which he discusses the casting process for Sylvester McCoy, his first meeting with Andrew Cartmel, and how ‘Time and the Rani’ has the best special effects he’s ever seen on television.

“Andrew Cartmel was suggested to me by his agent. He’s a writer, relatively young – in his twenties – and I read an awful lot of his stuff which I thought was smashing. We then met, to find out whether he’d be interested in finding out more about television as a script editor, and he leapt at it. If you’re going to have a new script editor, you want to capitalise on him, and what was most exciting about Andrew was that we sat and chatted about ‘Doctor Who’ and a sparky conversation happened – there were things we agreed on, things we disagreed on, and things that sent us off on tangents, and that’s the best kind of environment for a producer to work in. If the producer has a script editor who totally agrees with everything he says, or totally disagrees with everything he says, it becomes a stifling of everyone’s talent.

“I think ‘Time and the Rani’ has some of the best special effects that I have ever seen on television. It’s a very interesting story, it’s not highly complex, but really what you’re trying to do is to profile the new Doctor, and to make him showy and to the fore. Similarly, with someone like Kate O’Mara, you want there to be a good section with her. I think it’s a cracking good story for the new Doctor to embark upon. I approached Kate first. She loves the series, and she agreed to do it even before seeing a script. She gave me an early go-ahead, and that meant I could commission the story.

“I think what Stephen Wyatt has created with ‘Paradise Towers’, quite brilliantly, is a different way of speaking and a completely new way of life for a new civilisation. It’s been thought through all the way along, how people eat, how people live, and most specifically how they talk. There’s a very interesting way, for instance, that the Kangs speak. It’s that fullness of characterisation that has attracted the likes of Brenda Bruce, Liz Spriggs, Judy Cornwall, Richard Briers and Clive Merrison.

“Malcolm Kholl is somebody that Andrew knew. ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is a sort of pastiche; music plays an important part in the script. Malcolm has specified which numbers are the background to which scenes, so that virtually all, but not all, the music has been selected by the writer. Really, I would hate anyone to call this ‘Doctor Who – The Musical’, but it’s the closest the show will ever get, because music was such a focal point in the 1950’s.

“Ian Briggs’ ‘Dragonfire’ is a relatively traditional story, in the sense that it’s studio-bound and ‘Doctor Who’ started out as a studio-bound programme. It’s a very nice cast again. Tony Selby returns as Glitz, and we’ve got Shirin Taylor, Tony Osoba, Patricia Quinn and Edward Peel. It’s all set on an ice plant.

“Altogether, I think the whole season is varied and well balanced. There’s no similarity between stories or styles of writing. I’m rather excited, but still tentative. We’ve certainly heightened the humour – but it’s not silly like ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. I think there’s a lot of character humour, which is the best kind, because it comes from the essence of the part. There’s also the wit of dialogue, and there’s Sylvester McCoy – he’s very witty and amusing. Very inventive, tremendously physical, and he wants to do his own stunts, which he’s very good at. He was suggested by his agent, so I went along in January to see him in ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ As a result, I met him and chatted to him. And there we were. So the thought that agents’ letters are a waste of time, that they’re never really read and are just thrown into a bin, really goes out the window.

“I devised Melanie Bush as a character in July 1985, but as it wasn’t too important at that point, I never started to think about the casting. Then in December, I happened to be up in the West End, when I phoned Barry Burnett, Colin Baker’s agent, to see if he wanted to meet for a chat. I thought, as one does when meeting agents, who else was on his books, so you can make polite conversation. I remembered Bonnie Langford, and realised that she fitted my concept of Melanie as this health fanatic perfectly. I asked about Bonnie, but said that I doubted she’s want to do it. But Barry thought it was just the sort of different thing she’d been looking for, and so it went from there. The background I’d already created for Melanie in my book, ‘The Companions’, with the computer fraud involving the Master, was really a brief to writers who might want a background reference for her. I never intended to take it as established ‘Who’-lore. Indeed, we went right against it during the trial, because she didn’t know who the Master was.”

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John Nathan-Turner (1990’s)

October 21, 2009

Here’s John Nathan-Turner talking to DWM about filming in Paris and Amsterdam, and the plans for Robert Holmes’ ‘Yellow Fever and How To Cure It’.

“I was Production Unit Manager for Bill Sellars on ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. I used my own dog Pepsi in that. Robert Hardy wanted to echo the books and have Siegfriend with dogs constantly yapping at his heels. Being a mean PUM, there was no way that I was going to spend money on hiring all those dogs every week, so we used two of Bill’s, one of Robert’s, one that belonged to script editor Ted Rhodes, and Pepsi. She wasn’t calle Pepsi in the programme, because it was set before the drink was invented; she was called Pepper, and we both worked on the show for the next three years.

“I was an Assistant Floor Manager on Martin Lisemore’s ‘The Pallisers’, a twenty-six part costume epic, and our production manager had to go into hospital. Martin had confidence enough to let me take over rather than bring someone else in. When he was tragically killed in a car crash just after his biggest success, ‘I Claudius’, some of his closest friends in the business decided to mount a show as a tribute to him. They book a theatre but had no experience of putting on anyhing of that nature, so they asked me to take it over. I roped in Ted Rhodes, and together we compiled, wrote and produced the show. The BBC was magnificent, giving us secretarial help, production staff, costume designers and the use of a publicity team. We raised enough money to set up a trust fund for the family.

“During my third year as  PUM, I also did ‘Flesh and Blood’ with Thora Hird, Bill Fraser, Michael Jayston and Nigel Stock, most of whom later appeared in ‘Doctor Who’. Then one day I was called in to see Graeme McDonald, Head of Series and Serials, and I can remember exactly what he said – ‘John, your time has come. I want you to produce ‘Doctor Who’. So I started at the beginning of November 1979.

“Lalla Ward wanted to leave the programme and Tom Baker, having played the Doctor for seven years, also decided to go two stories later. When that happened, I decided to break with the tried and trusted tradition of the programme. Normally, the changeover of Doctors was marked by a regeneration in which the Doctor’s face was gradually phased out, but you didn’t see the face of his replacement because they often didn’t have one at the time! But because Tom had played the role for so long I thought that, as we had cast Peter Davison earlier than usual, we should establish him as soon as possible, so his face was seen at the end of the series.

“I had to change the locks on my office door more than once. We had a lot of theft from the studios and from my own office, some minor and fairly valueless, others causing us difficulties. We also discovered that pre-transmission scripts were circulating openly at a well-known public school for boys, and sometimes I saw them on sale at American conventions, selling for as much as two hundred or two hundred and fifty dollars. I used to get quite upset about people finding out what was coming up in the storylines, but in recent years I’ve come to think that if people want to spoil it for themselves, then let them.

“At various stages, we came into a lot of flak. In retrospect, sometimes the criticism has been fair. As far as violence is concerned, pehaps we did go a little bit beyond the line of what was acceptable occasionally. But I don’t agree that it was ever like a pantomime. Panto is a very specialist genre of theatre which stems from the commedia dell’arte. If anyone can really show examples of panto in ‘Doctor Who’, I’d love to see them. I don’t recall a single song sheet or a transformation sheet either, unless you count the regenerations!

“On the first day of filming (for ‘City of Death’), we discovered over lunch that Lalla’s shoes had been lost and that was just the beginning. When we went to the art gallery where we were to film, we found that it was closed. And when Tom and Lalla mimed opening the gallery door, a piercing alarm went off! We had to pack everything up hastily and move on before the police arrived. I remember the Fleet Street gang dived into the nearest bar.

“On the second day, a cafe we had chosen because it had a fine view of the Sacre Coeur was totally boarded up and there was worse to come on the final day. At the Louvre, our fixer arrived to tell us that we had been denied permission to film. Michael Hayes asked me what we should do, and I replied ‘Do it quickly’.

“For ‘Arc of Infinity’, we were filming in a huge square. It was the scene in which Peter Davison as Omega (impersonating the Doctor) had been infected. He was covered in green gunk and rice crispies, and was filmed moving through the crowds and the pigeons. No-one batted an eyelied!

“Yellow  Fever and How to Cure It would have involved Peri hankering for a trip home to the United States, and began with her seeing the Statue of Liberty through the TARDIS screen. Then she discovers it’s a replica in an ornamental garden. that was just one of a wide variety of locations we planned to use in Singapore. The story would have involved Kate O’Mara as the Rani.”

John Nathan-Turner (1995)

September 7, 2009

Just a brief bit from John Nathan-Turner, defending Colin Baker’s costume… by comparing it to a Hawaiian shirt…

“There were some complaints about the costume, and it’s nonsense. It was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. Colin’s costume is fine for the Doctor, he’s not a human like one of us, he’s an alien, he’s a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and so he’s bound to have different customs and different outlooks, and so it seemed logical to make it a bad taste costume. Bad taste in our opinion but not in his.

“I always liked wearing Hawaiian shirts, and Hawaiian shirts are very colourful, and I always felt that people took you very well, that they assumed you were a warm, friendly, funny, likeable, approachable sort of person if you were wearing a Hawaiian shirt, because of the bright colours and the patterns and so forth. So when it came to designing a costumer for Colin Baker, I thought why not make it a Hawaiian shirt, but make it Edwardian, like the other Doctors wore, like Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee would have worn, sort of Tom Baker meets the Hawaiian shirt. So we decided on a multi-coloured motif.

“It stretched to the opening title sequence as well, we took the Peter Davison title sequence and added streams of multi-colours, just like on my favourite Hawaiian shirts. I thought it looked terribly nice”.

John Nathan-Turner (1993)

August 30, 2009

Here’s John Nathan-Turner, probably the most controversial producer in the show’s history, giving a quite wide-ranging interview about the show. He talks about working as a Floor Manager in the Patrick Troughton days, about trying to persuade Peter Davison to stay on for a fourth series, and about the real reasons for the Colin Baker era’s troubles.

Q: Going back to ‘The Space Pirates’, how did you find the production team, the atmosphere, compared to under Barry Letts, who was producer on your second one ‘The Ambassadors of Death’?

A: Well when I first worked on the show it was in the role of Floor Assistant, the most junior member of the production team, basically a kind of glorified Call Boy, my main responsibilities being getting the actors on the set at the right time. And the very first story I worked on was with Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and subsequently two other stories with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. Now the thing about the role of the Floor Assistant is that you’re working on the floor, you don’t have headphones, you’re not aware of what’s going on upstairs, and certainly it seemed to me that what was going on down on the floor was more fun on the Patrick Troughton show. There was a tremendous atmosphere of naughty schoolboys, almost, with the last Pat Troughton and Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury all goofing around. Being serious for the rehearsals and takes, of course. Now that’s not to say that when it came to working on the Pertwee shows they weren’t fun, they were just not as much fun. I think perhaps the technicalities of the show undoubtedly had become greater. The show had moved into colour, which required greater concentration in those areas. So that’s why my chief memories of the show are of Pat’s era, towards the end of black and white era of ‘Doctor Who’, as being a very fun environment, and Jon’s era being a little more serious from upstairs.

Q: When the BBC gave you the producer’s post in 1979, you’d already proved yourself as a Production Unit Manager on ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ and on ‘Doctor Who’ under Graham Williams. Did you know what you wanted to do from the start with ‘Doctor Who’, particularly with the changes to fan consciousness of the show in America?

A: I think if you’re hoping for something to happen, like you’re hoping to take over ‘Doctor Who’ as producer, then you tend to have very very tentative plans indeed, because I think the whole time perhaps you’re expecting disappointment and that it won’t happen. So I’d made only a few initial plans of what I’d do if I got to take over from Graham Williams. It wasn’t until I actually took over that I sat down seriously to appraise what it was that I actually wanted to do. I think it was a case of tempting fate too much, if I’d had an enormous list before I got the job.

Q: Recalling what Pat Troughton told Peter Davison, to not play the Doctor for more than three years, and then recalling the 18th month hiatus, the cancellation in 1989, and all that happened, do you wish you’d got Peter Davison to stay on for a fourth year?

A: Well I did attempt to persuade Peter to stay on after he’d completed three years. I think the decision that the optimum period is three years is one that’s been made subsequent to Peter’s time. I think everyone at the BBC – myself, the head of drama, perhaps even the controller of BBC1 – did attempt to persuade Peter to stay on. If that had happened, I think those questions of ‘What if?’ are very difficult to answer. One thing I know is that I really wish that I had moved on earlier, because I feel to some extent, although every actor who plays the part gets labelled by playing the leading role in the world’s longest-running science-fiction series, I feel that as producer for eleven years it labelled me more than I would like, because I don’t see my future being concerned totally with science-fiction. I actually see my career having a much broader canvas, really, so I think in terms of people moving on maybe I should have moved on earlier.

Q: On the bright side, if you come to the States you always have somewhere to stay.

A: (laughs) That’s true.

Q: Looking at Colin Baker’s era, and the official story that the show was put on hiatus for 18 months because of the excessive violence in his first year, do you wish you could change the violence level, looking back at it?

A: Well I think I have to pick you up there and say I don’t think it’s ever been said that it was taken off for 18 months because it was too violent. I think the real reason was that they needed a certain amount of money by cancelling many programmes – ‘Doctor Who’ was one of them – to establish daytime television on the BBC, and it was an attempt to suddenly demand this money because the BBC wished to pull forward their launch date because the independent companies were pulling forward theirs. So there was a sudden and dramatic attempt to get this money by cancelling a lot of shows, and this was always the reason, or certainly the reason I was always given, as to why it was rested. As for Colin’s contribution, I actually think he got a tremendously raw deal, in that he did one season, then there was the hiatus, then we came back and there were only fourteen episodes and they were in a different format, and then the decision was made to move forward with a new Doctor. So Colin never got a chance to get his teeth into the part. I think most people would agree with me that the first season of virtually every Doctor is really a very tentative one, the actor trying desperately to find a way to play the part, which after all is veyr thinly sketched, and coming to terms with the amount of themselves that has to be injected into the portrayal. So I really feel that Colin, maybe, if there hadn’t been that hiatus, would have got into a slightly higher gear that would have allowed him to mature his portrayal.

Q: He did seem to get screwed, and he did very well with the resources that he had. Was ‘Doctor Who’ put off a bit to make way for ‘Eastenders’?

A: No, I don’t think so. ‘Eastenders’ had been on the cards for a number of years. I think that where ‘Doctor Who’ got involved with ‘Eastenders’ was that after ‘Doctor Who’ was moved from its traditional Saturday slot, each year we’d be on different days. One year it’s be Monday and Wednesday, then another year Monday and Tuesday, and so on, and apart from doubling our audience during this time, which was a significant indication that those early evening drama slots could work, I think that what we were doing was really rehearsing which of the two evenings of the week would be ideal for a soap opera which had yet to be named, which was ‘Eastenders’. And the whole thing has come full circle, because this weekend in Britain there has been a programme celebrating thirty years of ‘Doctor Who’ combining the programme with ‘Eastenders’. The TARDIS arrives in London and gets embroiled with characters from ‘Eastenders’ in a two-part mini-adventure in 3D, a very exciting technology that I don’t think we’ve seen the end of. The story has all five living Doctors, twelve companions, a multitude of characters from ‘Eastenders’, and a multitude of monsters, something like twenty different monsters. And in a way there’s a certain irony that we were once rehearsing the slot for ‘Eastenders’, which by the way has just become the most popular programme in Britain, in positions one and two, it’s finally beaten ‘Coronation Street’.

Q: Fans want to know if the selection of Bonnie Langford as Melanie Bush was because the BBC wanted to keep the show on track when it returned, because she was popular from ‘Crackerjack’, or was it more a matter of calming down the front office from the BBC’s point of view?

A: You’ve got a lot of mis-information there. Bonnie was never on ‘Crackerjack’, which was a programme that was cancelled when ‘Doctor Who’ was rested in 1985, and ‘Crackerjack’ never came back. I don’t think Bonnie was ever involved in that. I cast Bonnie, it was my idea, I thought she was right for the part. I also thought that bringing in someone who already had a name, as a companion, would help with publicity, to refresh people’s memory and to help with that. It was not a popular decision with many of the fans in Britain, but I think you have to keep that in perspective. Fans with a big ‘f’ who are members of the DWAS in Britain total 2,500 people, and over the years, for example when we were doing two episodes a week and getting ten million viewers, I think you have to keep the views of the Fans in context.

Q: I was speaking to Sophie Aldred, and she said that she didn’t originally audition for the role of a companion. She said she auditioned for Chris Clough, then went to you for approval, then back to Chris Clough and found out that you had just selected her in a way that required no test readings or auditions whatsoever. And she said that she owes her career success to you.

A: Well it was a weird situation in a way, because at the end of that season there were two stories both of which featured a possible ongoing character. There was a young girl in ‘Dragonfire’ and a young girl in ‘Delta and the Bannermen’, and the script editor Andrew Cartmel and I couldn’t  decide which story should end the season, and consequently the casting of these two young girls involved my office in a very major way because whichever one went out last would possibly hold the key to staying on in the show as a companion. But I’m delighted that it was Ace. I certainly don’t think that Sophie was right for the other part. I’m not saying she couldn’t have played it, but I think she was much righter for Ace, and I think the combination of Ace with Doctor number seven, Sylvester McCoy, is probably one of the most successful in the show’s history.

Q: How do you know if that chemistry will exist?

A: If you could bottle that kind of chemistry, you’d be the next multi-millionaire. I think it’s very much a kind of instinctive chemistry that happens between two people who are working together and something additional gels in front of the camera. It’s something that I think was particularly applaudable in the work that Sophie and Sylvester did.

Q: Onto the ‘New Adventures’ books, do you like the novels and their treatment of the characters?

A: I have to confess that I have limited knowledge of those novels and their characters. Not being the resident producer of ‘Doctor Who’, although I’ve just guested on this Children in Need thing, I find some of the things that have developed that I’ve read slightly odd, you know, but then I’m a sweet old-fashioned thing hankering after my old days. I think it’s right that the show should develop, and I’m not knocking what Peter Darvill-Evans does with the books, and I think it needs to go forward in order to be successful. The development of characters, situations, the whole premise of the show, I think it would be infinitely preferable if it happened on television rather than in the novels first.

Q: Sophie Aldred said that she didn’t like seeing Ace as a warmonger in the books, she wanted her to be a pacifist, but she said that she hadn’t actually read the books. I take it a lot of people from the show don’t know how the books have developed things?

A: Unfortunately not had the time, I guess.

Q: Your participation with the video releases, after the cancellation, did that help to convince the BBC that they didn’t really need to make new stories? That they could just make a buck with rehashed old stories.

A: Well, I think that’s a very simplistic view, if I may say so. I think inevitably there’s a buck to be made, but you don’t have to be a mathematician to see that the buck is going to run out pretty soon. In the UK, they release twelve complete stories each year, plus three specials, and that’s a hell of a lot of material. They’ve been doing it for a number of years, and I don’t think it’ll be long before those video releases run out. I know you get them slightly slower in the States, so they’ll hang on longer, but I really don’t think that anyone thinks it’s a substitute for making new product.

Q: When the show comes back, how would you like to see it?

A: I’ve said in print and in a docuumentary that goes out tonight in the UK that I see this ‘Children in Need’ thing as my absolute farewell to ‘Doctor Who’. Although it’s only twelve minutes, it has brought together every living Doctor, all of them in costume, all of them recording new material that’s specific to this rather than using material that was left over from a junked story, and it’s brought back so many of the companions and so many of my old team that I really feel that it’s the end of ‘Doctor Who’ for me. What it needs for the future is a new team with new ideas and a whole new aegis of taking the show forward into the next century.