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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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