Posts Tagged ‘Sydney Newman’

Sydney Newman (1986)

October 25, 2010

This isn’t an interview, it’s part of a letter from Sydney Newman to Michael Grade in which Newman suggests that the seventh Doctor should be a woman. Covered in the Daily Telegraph, the recently discovered letter doesn’t really inspire much confidence. Thankfully his advice wasn’t heeded; if it had been, we’d never have had Sylvester McCoy as No. 7, and so my favourite Doctor wouldn’t have existed!

“At a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman. Don’t you agree that this is considerably more worthy of the BBC than Doctor Who’s presently largely socially valueless, escapist schlock?

“This requires some considerable thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy, Hollywood Wonder Woman, because this kind of heroine with no flaws is a bore.

“Should you accept these ideas the fee I would accept would be in the form of my being taken on and paid to be its executive director to ensure the concept is properly executed

“Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.”

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Sydney Newman (1986)

October 3, 2009

Sydney Newman was, for many, the creator of ‘Doctor Who’, even if there were so many people involved in the show’s conception that many others could stake a claim for being involved. It was Newman, however, who jotted down the basic idea of a time-travelling old man in a police box, whisking two teachers and a young girl (eventually changed to become his grand-daughter) off on a journey through time and space. In this DWM interview, he talks about the early days of ‘Doctor Who’, starting with a brief from the BBC to come up with something to stop people switching to ITV after the football results…

“Sports had a tremendous audience and then, suddenly, there was a dramatisation of Dickens or ‘The Water Margin’ or something, and everyone tuned into ITV or switched off. So my bosses thought maybe I ought to come up with another kind of drama that would hold the sports-loving audience. I moved the classic serial to Sunday afternoons and dreamed up ‘Doctor Who’ to replace it.

“Doctor Who was really the culmination of almost all my interests in life: I wanted to reflect contemporary society; I was curious about the outer-space stuff; and also, of course, being a children’s programme, it had to have a high educational content. Up to the age of forty, I don’t think there was a science fiction book I hadn’t read. I love them because they’re a marvellous way – a safe way – of saying nasty things about our own society. I’d read H.G. Wells, of course, and I recalled his book ‘The Time Machine’. That inspired me to dream up the time-space machine for ‘Doctor Who’. It was a great device which allowed my audience to be taken to outer space, to elsewhere in the world today, or back into the past.

“I then dreamed up this senile old man of 740 years of age to be the running character. He has fled in terror from another planet in this spaceship which lands on Earth in the form of a police box. He’s wandering around in the London fog when he’s met by two school teachers who are walking home one of their pupils. They help him to what they think is his house, but it’s a police telephone box in a junkyard! But inside, it’s really a vast spaceship! However, this dim old guy doesn’t know how to operate the machine, presses the wrong button and they take off. And that was the idea.

“Donald Wilson thought it was ‘possibly’ a good idea. Although a Scot, he was frightfully English – very correct, pip-smoking, everything but a handkerchief in his sleeve! He was very cautious and wouldn’t commit himself. I loved that man, because he was so different from me. He was very cultured, tall and lean; and he was always amused by me, because I was so crude.

“I remembered this extremely bright girl called Verity Lambert, who had worked for me as a production assistant at ABC. I called her up and said ‘D’you want to be a producer?’. She was only a personal assistant and said ‘Of course!’. I gave her a two-page memo on ‘Doctor Who’ and said ‘Can you do it?’. She said ‘Yeah, okay’ and she did! I’d give a million bucks if someone could find that memo.

“Verity was the one who realised it all, although I had a hand in the casting. I helped her quite a bit in the beginning, because she was inexperienced as a producer, and she was frightened to death coming to the BBC. However, she had worked with some of my best directors – like Ted Kotcheff and Philip Saville – so she knew the production grass roots extremely well. And she turned out to be a real winner. I’m told there were quite a few rumblings within the BBC, because she’d never been a director, and because she was a girl. She was tough, good-looking and stubborn. If she didn’t like something, she came out honestly and said so. It wasn’t ‘I don’t know why I don’t like this’, it was ‘I don’t like it because of X, Y and Z, it should be A, B and C’. She was very positive, as a good producer has to be.

“We shot a dummy run and it didn’t work out right because Bill Hartnell’s characterisation was a bit too nasty and I thought he’d put off the viewers. Also, I wanted one character with whom my children’s audience could identity, and who was a stranger to Dr. Who, but somehow it turned out that Dr. Who was her grandfather. And I never wanted that – ever! I’ve never forgiven Verity for that!

“With the educational aspect in mind, I wrote in my memo that the outer space stories must be based on factual knowledged about outer space. Also, by going back in time we could bring history alive for the young, having ‘Doctor Who’ and his earthlings on the shores of Britain when Caesar landed – that sort of situation. Being a real aficionado of science fiction, I hated stories which used bug-eyed monsters, otherwise known as BEM’s. I write in my memo that there would be no bug-eyed monsters in ‘Doctor Who’. And after a few episodes,  Verity turned up with the Daleks! I bawled her out for it, but she said ‘Honest, Sydney, they’re not bug-eyed monsters – they’re human beings who are so advanced that their bodies have atrophied and they need these casings to manipulate and do the things they want!’. Of course, the Daleks took off and captured everybody’s imagination. Some of the best thing I have ever done are the thing I never wanted to do. It’s true! It’s worked out that way.

“At the BBC, every Wednesday morning there was a meeting called the Weekly Programme Review, where all the departmental heads got together to talk about the previous week’s programmes and decided what was wrong and what was right about them. Some of the departmental heads voiced criticism that the Daleks were too frightening. I didn’t agree with them, so I protested. The late Huw Wheldon, who as Programme Controller was chairing the meeting, fortunately agreed with me. ‘Nonsense,’ he roared out, ‘I’ve got two little kids and they put waste paper baskets on their heads and run around yelling Exterminate! Exterminate!’, and of course that calmed everything down.

“In ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, the Doctor and his friends arrived in some world where they’re playing chess, or something. It was wonderful and very intellectual, and thank God it was attractive to watch. I don’t think anyone understood it – I never did!

“Patrick Troughton was unhappy being asked to produce a carbon copy of Hartnell’s performance, so I suggested that he interpret the role like a ‘cosmic hobo’. But still, the Doctor must never know how to operate the TARDIS. The earthlings should always want to get back home, and the Doctor should always intend to take them home, but they mistakenly end up somewhere in the past of in the future.

“Someone once told me that there was a question in Trivial Pursuit, ‘Who created Doctor Who?’. You turn the card over and it says the answer is Terry Nation! I wrote a rather stinging letter, demanding the destruction of all the Trivial Pursuits that had that mistake in them, hinting at some fabulous compensation that they should give me for demeaning my contribution to (laughs) world culture! I got lawyers and everything, but I didn’t get anywhee. They just said they would withdraw the card. I even wrote to Terry Nation for his support, and he sent me a very nice letter back.”

Shaun Sutton (1992)

September 8, 2009

Shaun Sutton was the man in charge of BBC serials when William Hartnell was forced to relinquish his role as the Doctor. The show’s popularity was so great that the decision was taken to re-cast the leading role, and in this interview from the early 1990’s Sutton describes the process, including Sydney Newman’s involvement during a dress rehearsal in a basement at Television Centre:

“The producer and I were absolutely determined to have Patrick Troughton, because we knew Patrick Troughton and I had actually been a drama student with Patrick Troughton many years ago, before the war. And even back then, Patrick had those deep lines on his face, he had the look of a thousand-year-old leprechaun, and I remember saying to him once, before the war, ‘Pat, you have the secret of eternal age’, and I thought that was a very good quality for ‘Doctor Who’.

“Anyway, we both knew he was a good actor, I’d done many television plays with him, and I wanted him, I thought he had a magical quality about him, a wizard quality, and so did Innes Lloyd. Any good actor, like Patrick Troughton, can go and get work anywhere. And the fear with a part like ‘Doctor Who’ is that you’ll not only get typed as that part, you simply won’t get work anywhere because people will say ‘Oh, no, everyone will think of him as Dr. Who’, so we did had to persuade him, and I had to persuade him on more than one occasion to come back for another year.

“Of course, we had to sell him to Sydney Newman, so we prepared a sort of parade, as it were, and we were down in the dressing room in the basement of Television Centre. And he was dressed in his first costume, which for some reason was the captain of an American Mississippi showboat. I don’t know why that was his costume. And we called Sydney down, Sydney took one look and said ‘Shaun, let’s take a walk’, and I said to Innes ‘Out of the costume’.

“And Sydney and I walked around the entire basement of Television Centre, and believe you me that is a long way when you’re getting your fortune told by Sydney Newman. By the time we got back, Innes had Patrick in the costume he would eventually wear for ‘Doctor Who’, that funny little suit and odd tie and the hat and the penny whistle. And I think it was here that Sydney actually proved himself to be a great boss, because he looked and he said ‘I still don’t see it, but if you and Innes say it’s okay, okay, go ahead’ and he stamped out and on the way he said ‘You’d better be good’, and of course he was, Patrick Troughton was one of the best Dr. Who’s, and I thought he was a marvellous choice.

“He was, in a way, a little magician, a leprechaun. There was an impish quality that wasn’t there in Bill Hartnell. Bill Hartnell, in the very first ones, had much more of that impish quality than he had in the latter ones, he became much more of a Sergeant Major, which I didn’t think was very suitable, but Pat had it all the way through, and of course he got on marvellously well with the people who worked with him. He was first rate, he was a friend for many years, I liked his eccentricity. So I was extremely sorry when he left ‘Doctor Who’ and when he died, he was a friend I missed”.

Patrick Troughton (1986)

September 4, 2009

Here’s a transcript from Patrick Troughton’s appearance at one of the Panopticon conventions. It’s quite a wide-ranging interview, covering his initial acceptance of the role through to his decision to quit after three years.

“The telephone rang. I was in Ireland doing a film called ‘The Viking Queen’, in which I did not play the main part, and I forget who, I think it was Shaun Sutton, Shaun Sutton was at the other end of the phone with this astonishing and preposterous suggestion. It was a fairly quick way of making it die a death, I thought. As each day passed, he kept on asking and offering me more pennies for it. I had a young family, I thought ‘I could get them educated on this’, and after about a week I thought ‘Right, now I can educate the kids, I’ll do the part’. So that’s really why I took it.

“We went to Berman’s, I think it was Berman’s, and we looked through all the old rubbish, really. (laughs) We just got things out of hampers and had a look. It was sort of a ragged imitation of Billy Hartnell, I suppose, only way out. And there was a first script, which was sort of written for Billy but which was written, it struck me, for a very verbose, sort of autocratic Sherlock Holmes who never stopped talking. And I thought ‘That won’t do for me over three years of every Saturday’, so I said first of all ‘No, I don’t see the part like this, I see it really as a listener’. I think this Doctor listens to everyone, tots it all up and then makes his own decision about this.

“Then in comes Sydney Newman, and he starts talking about this cosmic hobo, who obviously doesn’t talk like an intellectual type, autocratic Sherlock Holmes at all. And I leapt at it, what a good idea, and I said ‘A man like that would be more of a listener, wouldn’t he?’, and they said ‘Yes’. So that’s how that came about, really. I was very keen on doing it like that, because to begin with I found myself playing it over the top, mostly because that’s how Sydney Newman was urging me to play it. But Shaun Sutton, who I think was a little wiser than Sydney Newman in many ways, in fact considerably wiser, he said ‘No, no, just do it in your head, old chap’, so I toned it down a bit after that and it was warmer and a bit more successful.

“And of course Michael Craze was responsible for me wearing that absurd Beatles cut, he and Anneke Wills. Just before we went on, we got down to make-up and I’d had a lovely wig fitted that made me look just like Tom Baker, actually, or Colin, and I put it on, and they (Anneke Wills and Michael Craze) both looked at me and said ‘You look like Harpo Marx and we’re not going on with you in that wig’, I said ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, they said ‘No, sorry, no’. So they took if off and started doing things, combing it and lifting it and all that, and I ended up like the Beatles, which is totally out of date. Not that that matters to a Timelord.

“When you’re a character actor you’re having to make decisions all the time, and that’s a question of gaining confidence in the part you play, and that takes the time, really. Whereas with ‘Doctor Who’, the three years of it, you weren’t learning lines, really, you were learning thoughts.

“I was delighted when (Frazer Hines) joined. I knew him way back, because Frazer… (thinks) He’s a good listener, when you’re together just with him, he’s a good listener. And he’s not a bad actor, either! (laughs) We never played practical jokes, never. I’ve never known it to happen. (laughs) There’s no time for all that. All we did in rehearsals was to play Aggravation for three years. That’s a card game. We had penny stakes on it, and we played solidly when we weren’t actually on the set. It kept your mind sane, really. You had to keep to a routine, ’cause when you’re working at that pitch you have to keep to a routine, rather like a very young child or a very old man like I’m getting. And if that routine is broken, you just want to break into tears. There was a director once who bounded in and said ‘We’re going to start rehearsals at ten instead of ten-fifteen’, and that completely ruined our life for about half an hour. (laughs) It’s an astonishing thing, you’d keep going as long as everything was just like the day before, but once it got different… it was very worrying.

“Starting again was rather like jumping on a running bus. I remember that Monday, Tuesday… Monday we read it, Tuesday rehearsed it, Wednesday rehearsed it, half day Thursday then you were on Friday. We filmed every fortnight, and in the end, Frazer and Wendy and I had a sit-down strike and said ‘We’re not going to film at the weekends, because we’re getting tired irritable’. We had a big conference, Shaun Sutton took us out for a lovely meal, tried to talk us out of it, and we said ‘No!’, and in the end the planners, those chaps up in the sixth floor with their little maps and flags all arrange in lovely patterns but who don’t know much about the actual working of a play, they changed their mind.

“You could stay with it, and they wanted me to, for as long as the BBC did it or they got tired of you. That might be at best, one thought, five years. That would have been eight years, and by then one would have been so connected with the character that getting other work would have been very difficult indeed. So that was the main consideration there. Or one could leave. Give up a fortune. And that’s what we decided to do”.