Verity Lambert tribute

Last year, in celebration of SFX’s 150th issue, we invited Russell T Davies to meet Verity Lambert, the original, pioneering producer of Doctor Who. It was a conversation we were privileged to be part of – Verity was by then one of the most significant and influential figures in British television, but had clearly lost none of her love for the phenomenon she had helped to birth (nor her talent for expressing frank, insightful opinion). She had a reputation for taking no prisoners, but welcomed us into her London home with warmth and charm to spare. In tribute to this legend of the television industry – and someone who was very much the mother of our favourite Time Lord – we present another chance to read the interview that originally appeared in SFX 150.

Verity, can you see a throughline from your Doctor Who to Russell’s?

Verity: I can see that there are things in Russell’s Doctor Who which come from the original Doctor Who…

Russell: Oh, lots!

V: And I think they should be there. That’s what’s so clever about it. Most of the writers seem to be members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (laughs) so they’ve kind of lived and immersed themselves in Doctor Who. What you’ve managed to do is extract the essence of what was there, and at the same time bring it into 2006.

R: We’ve really taken it back to the ‘60s. All the structures that were put up inbetween are gone – the Time Lords and all that pompery, which I love, as a fan, but when you look at what you were doing in 1963, it was just so open.

V: You see, I didn’t have any Time Lords at all. He was a mystery. That’s why he was Doctor Who. Had he stolen this thing called a TARDIS? He didn’t know how to work it – was he an absent-minded professor? Was he a criminal? Was he on the run?

Did you have a background for him worked out in your own heads?

V: No, I had no idea. We had this mystery character, who didn’t have a background, who was just there, and could have been anything, and that was actually more interesting than trying to give him a background. At that point we wanted him to be a mystery. If he’d stolen the ship, were they in the hands of some lunatic?

R: But would William Hartnell say ‘Where am I from? What’s my background?’

V: Well, I think we said to him ‘You know where you’re from, but you never let on. And the fact is we don’t know if you’re a criminal. Maybe you are a criminal. Would you like to be a criminal?’ (laughs) We spent hours and hours trying to find an explanation for Time And Relative Dimension In Space…

R: Did you? Marvelous!

V: Finally after about two days of headbashing I said we’re not going to explain it! There is no explanation, and if we don’t give one, people will accept it. I mean, it’s bigger on the inside – how can you ever explain that? So we didn’t. And nobody ever asked!

R: No, you never do. It’s just like Narnia and the wardrobe.

Russell, do you and David Tennant know stuff about the Doctor that the audience don’t?

R: No, not particularly. We know roughly a lot of the stories for season four. We have conversations about big Doctor stories that are to come, stuff that will challenge him, certain key episodes that will look at him in a new light. But no, we don’t talk it to death. We just get on and do it.

Verity, you were 26 when you produced Doctor Who…

R: You must have been the youngest producer there by miles…

V: I was the youngest producer in the drama department by a long way. And the only woman, at that point. Most of the people in the drama department couldn’t understand why I’d been hired anyway. They used to ask me if I’d slept with [Head of Drama] Sydney Newman to get the job.

R: They asked you out loud?

V: Out loud! Yes, one or two people, after they’d had a few in the club. So I had to overcome all that – not that I minded, particularly, because I was pretty thick-skinned.

R: Did you have a thick skin, though, or did you grow it?

V: I think I always had one. When you’re 26 years old you think you can do anything. I had a huge opportunity and because you don’t really know anything you think you know everything.

R: They must have thought you were so…radical! I just imagine everyone else at the time were middle-aged men wearing demob suits! You were wild, you lot! 26 year old woman, gay Asian director… they must have thought you were bananas!

Did you have the final decision on who should play the Doctor?

V: Yes, absolutely. I thought about Bill because he did this thing called The Army Game where he played this ghastly Sergeant Major, and then I saw This Sporting Life, where he played this failed rugby league talent scout… and he was so touching in it. And I thought well, here’s an actor who can combine two things, because I always thought that Doctor Who should be dangerous, at the same time as touching and lovable as well.

So is that the same for you, Russell, when you’re casting the Doctor?

R: Oh, danger, yes…

V: I sense that with Christopher Eccleston you got the danger but you didn’t get the comedy, and with David – I think he’s terrifically good, but he could be a little more dangerous…He’s terribly good at the comedy and the throaway and he’s very charming, but I saw him do an ITV play where he played a serial killer and he was so frightening, and I do think it’s quite nice sometimes to get that side…

R: I think it’s there with him. I think a lot of his fun and japes are an act. He plays it as an act.

You’ve sexed the Doctor up a bit, Russell…

R: Yes…

Would you cast an older Doctor?

R: No. There’s no question of it, because it’s 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for 9 months of the year. If we cast someone who was 50 they’d be dead now.

V: I think that nowadays you don’t really want an older Doctor. I think the fact that these guys are hip and modern is very good, and the audience likes that. I don’t think that they would respond to some older man. I thought David Tennant was a really, really good idea. I have to be very honest and say I wasn’t quite so sure about Christopher. I think he’s a wonderful actor, but I wasn’t sure that he was right, and I felt when I was watching it – although I enjoyed it – that he was not completely comfortable.

R: Oh, he was. He loved it. I think he was playing an uncomfortableness with people, with humans.

V: I prefer David Tennant. I just think he’s so winning.

R: It’s hard to find those – there are very few leading men like that, with the energy to carry a show like that. If he’d said no, I wonder to this day what we would have done.

V: I tell you, the real revelation for me was Billie Piper.

R: For all of us, for all of us. Bless her!

V: I thought she was just brilliant. The thing about her is that she never stops, she always plays it for real, which is just wonderful.

R: She does that 100% of the day, every day. Never had a bad day with her. Everybody has a tired day or a sleepy day, even the best actors in the world – but never with her. Quite extraordinary, the commitment.

Verity, you also introduced the Daleks. They were a phenomenon, weren’t they?

V: I remember going down to rehearsal, when we had the first Daleks, and everyone including me wanted to get inside them and run them around. There was just something about them.

Did you get inside them?

V: Yes! Of course I did!

R: I never have (laughs) Too big. I think I’d get stuck! I think I’d still be in it now!

V: There was just something magical about them.

R: There is something, isn’t there? They just draw the eye. It’s literally true – everyone gets excited when the Daleks are on set.

The amazing thing is that it still works, and these are kids who haven’t grown up with Doctor Who.

R: I knew it would. I was the one saying don’t change a detail. The proportions and the shape are exactly the same. There was a lovely Bryan Hitch design of flying, circular Daleks, but it was just a droid – Star Wars is full of them. That doesn’t scare me. But there’s something brilliant about that shape. It’s inbuilt with me, because they scared me when I was three years old, but to see it working again, with kids, is just extraordinary. I used to draw them as a kid compulsively. But of course they all went into the void, so you’ll never see them again (laughs).

V: The BBC offered poor old Raymond Cusick £25 for designing the Daleks. I managed to get it up to £50, although there was a great deal of resistance. A group of girlfriends and I always used to go out and have these long Saturday lunches at very expensive restaurants that we couldn’t afford, and one day we were sitting in this restaurant. It’s about 3 o’clock, and in those days you used to have the wine and the brandy and all that. And there was a group of people sitting at the table opposite us. We kept talking, as one does when you’ve had around 84 brandies, and I introduced ourselves. One of the men said ‘You’re Verity Lambert? You’ve made me a millionnaire!’ And I was being paid £1,600 a year, right? He said ‘I bought half the franchise for the Dr Who toys!’ His name was Walter Tuckwell. And I said to him ‘Well, the least you can do is take me out!’ So he arrived in his Bentley one evening and took me out for a very expensive dinner…

Verity, is it true you were in talks to bring back Doctor Who in the early ‘90s?

V: It’s true. The BBC approached me to resuscitate it…

R: I thought that was just a rumour…

V: No, they did, and at that time I wanted Peter Cook to play the Doctor.

R: Oh, wow! That would have been wonderful.

V: But then I thought well, I’ve done this. I was quite young when I made it, and I think it needs younger people – it needs people who are in touch with young people.

R: I’m 43… but I’m one of the gays! Hooray! We go down the disco!

V: I don’t think that I’m out of touch with what’s going on, but sometimes it’s best not to go back, because you carry some of that baggage you took from the early days… some of it’s good baggage, but some of it may not be. When someone new comes in they can take the good bits and then chuck out stuff that’s not appropriate anymore. I think that’s part of the strength of Doctor Who now – it relates very much to what’s going on, along with all the fantasy. That last episode, with all the Daleks flying over Canary Wharf… I just sat there going ‘How brilliant! Why couldn’t we have had something like that?’

R: Yes, it was gorgeous!

V: I love the way you relate it to what’s happening. I loved the one with Zoe Wanamaker, where she’d had all that plastic surgery. I like the way you get in the kind of follies that occur today. It’s not just Daleks and Cybermen. It’s to do with some of the really idiotic things that happen in the world we live in. I think one of the problems with Doctor Who is that it went on for a very long time, and sometimes you need a gap, time to take a deep breath and say hold on a minute, things have changed around us, and we need to incorporate those things.

R: I’m not just saying this because you’re here, but like I said, a lot of it was also about taking it back to the 60s… no Time Lords, proper people as companions who had histories and real lives, seeing the wonder of the Tardis, travelling into the future and the past… And that’s what you did. There have been so many different versions of Doctor Who since then, but I sat down and said we need to get back to that 60s version, where Daleks were mysterious and powerful and had empires and things like that… It all became so nailed down when it went into colour. That’s when the rules start to be fixed down. And the 60s were so mysterious and enigmatic, and the Doctor could have bits of dialogue like ‘We’ve wandered into another universe…’ And that would be impossible now. Fans would catalogue that out of existence now. You had such freedom.

V: Yes, we had incredible freedom, We did the most bizarre things. I don’t know if you ever saw that one with the giant butterflies and the ants…

R: Yes, The Web Planet! I love that one!

V: How we ever thought we were going to do that on £2000 a week I do not know…

R: But it worked! I was born in 1963 and by the time I was about 5 or 6 the Zarbi were one of those names that kids mentioned as a classic! I was too young to remember them, but there were annuals with them in and things like that, and they were considered to be just brilliant monsters. No one at the time laughed! I think it was brave and brilliant!

Do you still feel like it’s your baby, Verity?

V: No, I don’t feel that in that way at all. I feel like I started off something that went on forever and ever, and has now been resuscitated in a new way and is very successful. But it’s not mine any more. It has bits of my thing, but it’s another entity, and that’s jolly good. I do feel proud that years ago, knowing very little, I started something that is still running… Of course I do.