An on-going series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year
An idea as new and different as Doctor Who could only have been brought to the screen (especially on the BBC) by a young and relatively inexperienced team enjoying the new freedoms given to “youth” as the 1960s began to swing. Those behind-the-scenes in the early production of Doctor Who were innovators who took advantage of the fact that there was no template for a weekly science fiction adventure show. Key among them was the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert.
Sydney Newman, the Canadian poached by the BBC from ABC to oversee their drama output, first tried the traditional route in his search for a someone to run Doctor Who. Don Taylor, a politically engaged serious drama producer who regarded the BBC as the National Theatre of the airwaves, turned him down more out of personal antipathy than anything else. He’d objected to someone from “commercial” television sullying the halls of the BBC with their populist ideas. Children’s producer Shaun Sutton (later the BBC’s head of drama) also declined. Somewhat stymied by the traditional structures of the BBC, Newman then recalled a young production assistant on ABC’s Armchair Theatre who’d impressed him, the then-28-year-old Verity Lambert. Newman recalled much later. “I wanted somebody who’d be prepared to break the rules… somebody young with a sense of ‘today’, the early ‘swinging London’ days.”
Newman’s ideal producer was someone like himself, someone less wedded to the antiquated structures of the BBC, someone willing to find new ways to make television. Lambert’s enthusiasm and evident independence of thought outweighed her limited television experience. In fact, not being overly familiar with the old-fashioned ways in which the BBC worked would be a positive advantage. “She had never directed, produced, acted or written drama,” admitted Newman, “but she was a bright, highly-intelligent, outspoken production secretary who took no nonsense and never gave any.”
Although she’d come to television through the secretarial route (about the only option open to women other than make-up and costumes), Lambert had always been looking for something more. She knew she had something to contribute to this new mass medium, if only she would be given a chance. Her drive had brought her out of the secretarial pool at Granada and into the production side as an assistant on ABC’s anthology show Armchair Theatre. She’d instantly clicked with Newman, her boss on the show, and he recognised a kindred spirit, someone willing to learn and desperate to move on and—most of all—to take the opportunities presented to her to innovate.
Lambert was a go-getter, determined to make her way in television. She’d split her time at ABC with a year in New York, during which she’d gained useful experience. It was Lambert who took over the gallery directing a legendary live Armchair Theatre in November 1958 during which an actor had died, while director Ted Kotcheff worked directly with the actors on the studio floor. Having worked in the commercial sector, she was more in tune with faster-paced television, both on screen and in production. Only someone who really didn’t quite know what they were doing, but with the resources of the BBC’s best departments at her disposal, could fulfil Newman’s brief for his new Saturday teatime adventure serial.
Newman’s plan was all Lambert had upon her arrival: a document that had undergone months of development that outlined the ideas for Doctor Who. As well as broadly outlining the series, the document was accompanied by memos from various BBC departments complaining about the likely strain the proposed show would put on their out-of-date technology and on the antiquated, tiny studios at Lime Grove. It was these technical objections that saw Lambert make one of her first decisions: she cancelled the planned opening story that would see the TARDIS crew shrunk to miniscule size, and pulled forward a more straightforward caveman adventure in its place.
When Lambert arrived in June 1963 scripts became the first priority, with casting the leads close behind. If Lambert felt out of her depth, she didn’t show it to her new colleagues, some of whom resented both her youth (in the early 1960s, 28 was considered young in television which was still largely populated by men with wartime experience) and the fact that she was a woman. “She was too good-looking, too smart-alecky, too commercial-minded,” was how Newman summed up his BBC colleagues’ views of the newcomer.
Anthony Coburn’s caveman scripts made some important changes from the initial series outline, cementing the regular roles of the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and teachers Ian and Barbara. With that script in hand Lambert could turn her attention to casting the leads. Lambert knew from past experience that getting the casting of the lead right was a huge step in the success or failure of any show. The mysterious time-travelling Doctor was unlike any other role on British television, so she had little to go on other than Coburn’s by-then heavily revised original script.
The producer compiled a short-list of late middle-age men, including Cyril Cusack and Leslie French. It was, however, 55-year-old William Hartnell who caught Lambert’s eye, following a viewing of the film This Sporting Life (1963). He was mostly familiar, though, from his role as an irascible military man in ITV’s comedy The Army Game (1957-61) and several roles as tough guys or criminals. Although distrustful of the young female producer and the equally young Asian director Waris Hussein attached to the first serial, Hartnell was intrigued by the role of the Doctor, seeing it as an opportunity to change his image and star in a TV show that would appeal to children, including his own grandchildren. “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,” Lambert told Doctor Who Magazine. She signed Hartnell and quickly filled the other key roles with William Russell, Jacqueline Hill (whom she’d met at a party) and Carole Ann Ford (who’d been spotted by Hussein while she was making another production).
Entering the studio to record the first episode on 27 September 1963, Lambert knew this was her big test: she had to succeed in order to repay the trust Newman had placed in her. “We were all very nervous making our first few shows,” she later admitted, “simply because we were doing things that had rarely been done before, and certainly not by the BBC. I didn’t much care for the caveman story [An Unearthly Child] as a whole, but the ending of episode one is an absolutely magical sequence. 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.”
Doctor Who’s “pilot” episode, this first recording was fraught with technical problems, fluffed lines, mechanical difficulties with the giant doors of the TARDIS set and talk-back interference from the studio gallery. Newman was convinced that the result was untransmittable. However, he’d put too much into the show to abandon it now—it would be more expensive, as well as politically damaging within the BBC if he cancelled it. Newman knew his fortunes depended on whatever Lambert and Hussein produced, so he gave them another chance.
Crucially, Lambert took this opportunity to smooth out some of the rough edges of the central characters, especially that of the Doctor, and to revise some of the key dialogue to introduce more mystery. Rather than the explicit statement of the Doctor and Susan’s origins in “the 49th century” suggesting they were human time travellers from the far future, they became “wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time, cut off from our own planet…” That simple, late revision gave rise to one of the key reasons for the show’s longevity—the central mystery of the Doctor, something that powers the series to this day.
Doctor Who had a very shaky start within the BBC, derided as a folly, a kid’s show that would disappear after a few weeks. Newman put the loss of a planned Radio Times cover to launch the series down to a “lack of confidence in the programme at Controller level”. Yet, in the midst of the chaos, one woman was central to not only making the show work, but making it a hit. It is down to Verity Lambert’s inspired choices and her shepherding of the talents of many others, that we still have Doctor Who on air today.
Lambert remained with the show for its first two years on air and introduced many of the basic concepts that make the show work. It was Lambert who balanced the perceived need for historical (supposedly educational) stories with out-and-out science fiction adventure tales on alien worlds. She took the ridiculously low £2000 per episode budget and made small screen magic with it. She corralled the many talents of the BBC’s somewhat reluctant key departments in scenery, costume, make-up and special effects to turn the extremely limited space of their Lime Grove studio into the alien worlds of Skaro, the exotica of 13th century China, and the city of Morphoton, a ‘screaming’ jungle, and an icy wasteland—all part of the planet Marinus.
When Lambert left Doctor Who in 1965, she left behind a successful hit series that would enjoy a 26-year run. This solid foundation in supervising a troubled production on a shoestring and making everything work on screen stood her in good stead for a long career in film and TV. Her next show, Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67), had some similarities with Doctor Who, featuring a time-displaced hero and his glamorous sidekick. Soaps and crime dramas followed, with a brief spell at LWT before she became head of drama at Thames TV (the successor to ABC) in 1974. By 1976 she was in charge of Euston Films, producing material for cinemas and television, including a new Quatermass (1979) serial starring John Mills. In 1985 she entered independent production with her wittily named company Cinema Verity. Lambert was the most significant of those previously connected with Doctor Who that made attempts to revive the show in the 1990s—she lost out to Philip Segal’s US-based TV movie. Two of her productions made the Top 5 in the BFI’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th Century in 2000 (Doctor Who at #3 and The Naked Civil Servant at #4). Lambert was made an OBE in 2002 and died in 2007, just five days before her 72nd birthday. She is played by Jessica Raine (from Doctor Who’s Hide) in this November’s account of the early days of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time.
It would have been easy for Doctor Who to have failed at the first hurdles, but due to Verity Lambert it overcame early obstacles to triumph as one of the lasting classics of British television. She showed how the unlimited imaginative format of Doctor Who could be brought to the screen with limited resources, setting a challenge for everyone who came after her. Sydney Newman once said of his contribution to the creation of Doctor Who: “The best thing I ever did on that was to find Verity Lambert.”
Next: The Monsters!