Archive for the ‘Verity Lambert’ Category

Verity Lambert (1980’s)

November 10, 2009

Here’s Verity Lambert telling DWM about the early days of ‘Doctor Who’. She puts right a few misconceptions, and admits that she wasn’t too fond of ‘An Unearthly Child’…

“Doctor Who was never intended to last just six weeks. Right from the beginning, we were told it would be a year-round production. Certainly by the time the first episode was shown, we had most of our scripts together for the full season. The only thing we didn’t know then was that there would be another season after that. This myth about the show only being planned to last six weeks is one that has grown over the years, probably as a result of inventive reporting.

“The format for ‘Doctor Who’ was pretty well defined by the time I arrived. Donald Wilson had already given the job of writing the first story to Anthony Coburn, together with the firm guidelines as to how the characters would be broken down. The Doctor was to be irascible and unpredictable. What nobody wanted was a conventional dotty old professor, so it was stressed that the Doctor should be something of an anti-hero to begin with.

“Susan was his original travelling companion, to mix knowledge with naivety, though it was Anthony Coburn who cast her as the Doctor’s grand-daughter. I think Anthony Coburn felt there was something not quite proper about an old man travelling around the galaxy with a young girl for a companion. Ian was there to be the hero figure and to be physically adept, with Barbara on hand to solve the human orientated problem posed by the Doctor and Susan being something special.

“David Whitaker and Mervyn Pinfield were absolutely super in the work they put into ‘Doctor Who’. Mervyn was appointed to be our technical adviser because neither David nor myself were scientists in any degree. Our brief was to ‘use television’ – that is, make use of all its resources and new developments in order to achieve a scientific look. Mervyn Pinfield came up with opening graphics by suggesting the use of a camera pointing down its own monitor.

“We were all very nervous making our first few shows, simply because we were doing things that had rarely been done before, and certainly not by the BBC. David and I relied heavily on Mervyn to read through story ideas and scripts to see if they could be done easily and to our budget, or to suggest ways of modifying them so that they could be done with photographic tricks.

“I didn’t much care for the caveman story as a whole, but the ending of episode one is an absolutely magical sequences. There was no dialogue during those last few minutes, it was all done visually and, I think, with great invention, taking the four central characters on a ride through time to that desert and then ending with the shadow falling over the landscape. It summed up just how new ‘Doctor Who’ was as a concept.

“David chose Terry Nation on the strength of some science fiction work he’d already done for ITV, ‘Journey Into the Unknown’. At first we were a bit wary about accepting his storyline about the Daleks, because of the bug-eyed monster concept. Sydney Newman had outlined a series that was part history and part educational towards science; the aim being to expose children to science and history and hopefully interest them in it. I didn’t feel the Daleks altered Sydney Newman’s format, mainly as they were in functioning metal cases.

“The crisis came when Donald Wilson saw the scripts for the first Dalek serial. Having spent so much time defending ‘Doctor Who’, he saw the Daleks as just bug-eyed monsters, which went against what he felt should be the theme of the science-fiction stories. There was a strong disagreement between us, in fact it went as far as Donald Wilson telling us not to do the show. What saved it in the end was purely that fact that we had nothing to replace it in the time alloted. It was the Daleks or nothing. What was very nice, though, was Donald Wilson coming up to me after the Daleks had taken off and saying ‘You obviously understand this programme better than I do. I’ll leave it to you’.

“Dennis Spooner was known mostly for comedy, and as our scripts started coming in I decided I wanted to experiment with putting comedy into ‘Doctor Who’. ‘The Romans’ perhaps didn’t work very well, although I liked it enormously and I know Bill Hartnell felt much more comfortable doing comedy than all the scientific stuff”.

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.

Verity Lambert & Dennis Spooner (1964)

August 9, 2009

This is a fairly light 1964 piece promoting the return of the Daleks in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, episode one of which had just been broadcast. Nevertheless, there are relatively few interviews with Verity Lambert and Dennis Spooner, so even a small piece holds some interest. Scans coming soon(ish).

From the Daily Mail:

Shorty after 5.40 this evening a week of almost unbearable tension will come to an end.

At that time, the BBC adventure serial ‘Doctor Who’ comes on the air. And as some ten million viewers can tell you, the dreaded Daleks are back and about to reveal their future plans.

At the end of last week’s episode, a single specimen of this radioactive race of what appear to be malevolent pepper-pots rose from the Thames and waved its antenna at the terror-stricken audience. Then the credit titles rolled.

At once a howl of anguish went up all over Britain and the BBC switchboard was jammed with 400 calls. Angry viewers protested that the Dalek’s appearance was far too brief: that children who had waited months for another sign of the monsters were weeping and refusing to go to bed.

And not only children, for ‘Doctor Who’s massive audience includes millions of adults.

The operation of the Daleks – they were killed off earlier this year but brought back by public demand – is conducted by a remarkably attractive young woman called Verity Lambert who, at 28, is not only the youngest but the only female drama producer in BBC TV.

She arrived at the Corporation via Roedean, the Sorbonne University and a spell in New York as personal assistant to David Susskind, the producer and commentator who is one of the top figures in American TV.

‘Doctor Who’ was her first producing assignment a year ago, and with this background she has insisted on a high standard of professionalism for the serial.

“I have strong views on the level of intelligence we should be aiming at,” she told me briskly. “‘Doctor Who’ goes out at a time when there is a large child audience but it is intended more as a story for the whole family.

“And anyway children today are very sophisticated and I don’t allow scripts which seem to talk down to them.”

Nine well-established script-writers have contributed to ‘Doctor Who’ in the past twelve months and they are closely briefed on the requirements of the Doctor and his invaluable machine.

Story editor Dennis Spooner, who has written many episodes himself, told me “writers have to be divided into those who can cope with trips back into the past and those who can write adventures set in the future. Very few can do both.

“The futuristic stories ought to be easier because the scope is endless but we have to set some limits to remain mildly plausible and we have found that many writers are completely lost with science fiction.”

While the programme is running – and it has had only one six-week spell off the air – the cast start rehearsing each week’s episode every Monday morning in an outside rehearsal room and remain hard at it until the following Friday.

On Friday mornings they move into the studios at the Television Centre or the BBC’s riverside studios at Hammersmith and from 10.30am rehearse with cameras and the full, impressive range of props that appear in ‘Doctor Who’.

From 8.30 in the evening the programme is recorded and the cast are permitted the weekend off before starting all over again on the following Monday morning.

Pre-recording has allowed the regulars in the series a five-week holiday which is just ending.

When they return on Monday – with the exception of Carole Ann Ford, whose place in the team is being taken by a newcomer called Maureen O’Brien – they will start working non-stop for 26 weeks on programmes that will be shown in the New Year.

These ugly anti-social fugitives from an overgrown cruet may well have met their match in Miss Lambert.

Tall, dark and shapely, she became positively forbidding when I suggested that the Daleks might one day take over ‘Doctor Who’.

“I feel in no way obligated to bring them back for a third time even if this present story is a tremendous success,” she said with a noticeable chill.

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