Philip Hinchcliffe on producing Doctor Who, Tom Baker, special effects, Russell T Davies, Big Finish audio plays & more…

Interview Louisa Mellor 3 Sep 2013 - 07:00

Philip Hinchcliffe, Doctor Who producer 1974 - 1977, chats about Tom Baker, villains, visual FX, companions, the 2005 revival, & more…

A week or so ago in a Brighton basement, Den of Geek attended a fun evening organised by the - aptly named, in this instance - arts and entertainment group, Space

A regular Brighton-based event, Space regularly welcomes luminaries from the creative world to talk to its intimate group. Past guests have been from the world of film and television (Mark Gatiss, Toby Whithouse, Nicholas Roeg, David Morrissey, The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception visual effects artist Paul Franklin, Star Wars, Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark production designer Norman Reynolds), literature (Ian Rankin), and music (William Orbit, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, Goldie).

There are two Q&As per event, and opportunities to ask questions in an informal, friendly and geeky atmosphere, making the nights well worth the £8 advance ticket price. There’s even a raffle (the good kind, where you can win Matilda the Musical tickets and bundles of classic Doctor Who DVDs instead of bottles of Radox and wicker baskets of pot-pourri).

In celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th year, Space invited classic Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe to be in conversation with journalist and comedy writer Vicky Nangle. The result was a wide-ranging talk about working with Tom Baker and Bob Holmes, visual effects, making Doctor Who “for two and six”, having the Daleks “foisted upon” him, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, and much more. So much more in fact, that despite only intending to report back the highlights, we’ve more or less transcribed the whole thing.

Hinchcliffe was welcomed to the sound of (what else?) the Doctor Who theme, after a short compilation of clips from his era including the Fourth Doctor and Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, Mr Sin in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Ark in Space’s infamous grub. “Any favourites in there?” was the first question. Emphatically “No” Hinchcliffe answered, to much laughter, going on to describe the selection as “a very eclectic choice”…

On getting the job as Doctor Who producer at the age of 29:

They couldn’t get a producer from the BBC. It was a poisoned chalice. It was such a difficult show to produce that they couldn’t get producers to produce it, they couldn’t get directors to work on it, and they couldn’t get writers to write it. So little did I know I was walking into the lion’s den! But for me it was fantastic, because it was a highly-rated show that went out on Saturdays.

I got the job through my wife - as she always tells me – who was working for Lew Grade at Elstree. It was down to me and Nicholas De Jongh (who’s gone on to become a distinguished drama critic for The Guardian and so on) and I think I saved him from a fate worse than death! My agent knew the head of BBC stories, Bill Slater, very well, and they were looking for someone to take over from Barry Letts. I’d done children’s shows, but I’d also done a sci-fi serial.

Don’t forget that Verity Lambert was 29 when she started the whole thing. We were young in those days!.

Had he watched Doctor Who from the beginning?

I wasn’t a fan of the programme, I’d hardly watched it. I was conscious of the responsibility of not mucking it up [laughing] and keeping what was good about it and building on it and trying to do something new I was lucky that I had time to trail Barry Letts and Jon Pertwee and everybody and see how they made it.

On his working relationship with Bob Holmes:

Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat are what the Americans call showrunners, so they’re essentially writer-producers. All those great shows the Americans have done recently have famous showrunners on them, like Matthew Weiner on Mad Men and the guys running Homeland and The Sopranos, and a good series needs that. There has to be an author of the series, and it might be the writer, and it might be the producer, but someone has to be the guardian of what the show is about. In my case, it happened to be the two of us together. I think Bob Holmes and I sort of gelled and we both brought something to that role.

Bob Holmes was influenced by Hammer Horror. He used to say ‘We could do The Beast With Five Fingers or The Curse of the Mummy’ I’d never seen any of these films. Bob was a lot older than me, but I said ‘I think I know what you mean’.

On cliff-hangers and Mary Whitehouse:

I loved cliff-hangers, I grew up listening to Journey Into Space by Charles Chilton, a famous BBC producer who died last year, and I remember Dick Barton, which was on before The Archers. So the idea of listening for a quarter of an hour and there being a cliff-hanger was sort of in my psyche, I grew up with that and loved it, and I felt that we could do more of that with Doctor Who. But that means you’ve got to really hit the audience with something because there was no VHS, no recording, no DVD, no going back and seeing it again, you had to have an appointment to view, and you were in and you saw the episode, or you missed it. So it’s the old-fashioned Saturday morning serial thing that was part of the culture of viewing then, meaning you needed jolly good cliff-hangers.

I used to try and get double cliff-hangers and bring them back, and we ran into trouble with Mary Whitehouse with a couple of those, but I just don’t think she got the show really. I believe that I was responsible. There are things I wouldn’t have shown, but it was a question of that being my producorial decision. I think on the whole, I got it just about right. The BBC rowed back a bit on one of them on repeats, so there was something political going on with Mary Whitehouse to do with the BBC and not just my programme. I just think she [Mary Whitehouse] was wrong on the details more than anything.

On the Doctor’s character:

He’s just an old-fashioned hero really isn’t he? He stands up for what’s right in the world but operating within this slightly unique format of adventures in time and space and then with a British spin on it as well, you know, the eccentric British cultural context of it, made it what it was really.

On Tom Baker:

He was fabulous, absolutely wonderful. […] At the recent BFI anniversary screening of The Robots of Death - it was the first time I’d seen it in about thirty years. It was quite good actually! - afterwards there was a Q&A and Tom just brought the house down. For twenty minutes he did an absolute hysterical spiel. He’s so funny and so witty and his brain goes four times the speed of mine. He’s brilliant, and he was like that from the first day we met.

I think his enthusiasm was the main thing. Of course, he and I were new boys, we joined together, so he enthused me and I enthused him, and we got terribly excited about it. I said to him, ‘Tom, you’re going to be very, very famous, you’ve got to be ready for this’ because he’d made the Robot programme and I think he’d done Ark in Space, and when transmission time came on I said ‘Your life is going to change after this weekend, Tom.’ ‘Oh no, no, no, my dear boy, don’t be so silly’ he said, and of course he got on the tube to come to rehearsals the next week, on Monday, and he said ‘Do you know Philip, people were staring at me on the tube!’ He’d become, overnight, this celebrity.

I think the thing was he knew that the character existed out there with the children and with the fans as well as just being on the screen, and so I don’t mean he went into character when he was out there, but he was careful about preserving some mystique or something about the programme. An ambassador for Doctor Who.

On not overusing the Sonic Screwdriver:

I inherited the folklore of the programme from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. I can’t remember all the details now but there was an explanation of the TARDIS and how you can’t really tamper with history, and there was an alternative time path – anyway, I had to learn all this stuff and one of the things was that it’s not done to use the sonic screwdriver too much, otherwise it’s a sort of magic and can always get the Doctor out of danger. I don’t think in my era that you saw much use of that really. He’s really the scientist-as-hero isn’t he, a sort of modern Renaissance man, he is genuinely in jeopardy, the Doctor, and has to be for the story to work so we didn’t use the Sonic screwdriver too much. I don’t really know what it can do anyway. In my day, it used to just open doors and things like that and maybe burn through things, and it could somehow do things with cables in the TARDIS console, that was about it.

The great thing about the show is that it’s fun to work on because part of you takes it seriously because the narrative has to be plausible because that’s part of the entertainment, but then a part of you is detached and can – not laugh at it – but be amused by it, or be a bit ironic. That keeps you sane. In a way, there is a comic dimension to the way we handled it, but we kept the adventure side of it absolutely serious.

On the challenges of special effects in Classic Who:

You can go anywhere and do anything with the programme, but it does exist within a genre - even though it has a little niche within that genre. You still have to follow the folklore of the programme up to a point, and you’ve still got to construct the narrative and try and create willing suspension of disbelief in the audience. They’ve got to believe where they are and that was always the problem with it, particularly when colour came in, that you could see the sets more clearly.

The biggest problem was because we shot it multi-camera, by shooting with four cameras in a studio, the studio floor was always the thing that gave the game away. Even in those clips you showed, you could see with the TARDIS that you know you’re in a television studio. So when I took over, I really tried to give money and attention and energy to the design element, and managed to get a few designers who really got the message and so we tried to hide the fact we were in a television studio. Sometimes we could do that by going and filming outside, or shooting in the film studios at Ealing, where we created a wonderful jungle, but by putting different levels for spaceships and interiors using mirrors cleverly, you could actually disguise. So it’s all about creating the atmosphere with the lighting and design to take the audience to a place that they really believe they are. And we did it on two and sixpence! [Laughing].

On working with the designers to ensure special effects would be convincing:

Barry Letts was a fantastic producer and they did some great shows, but one of the things I spotted when I took over was that often, the special effects and design teams were landed with an almost impossible problem to solve. So I thought, well let’s work back and try to make sure not to hand them those hot potatoes that cannot be done, otherwise we’d end up with egg on our face. We did quite often end up with egg on our face, but the great thing about Doctor Who is that the audience are quite forgiving in a way, so we were lucky.

I would go to the designers and say ‘Can we do that? Can we do this? Can we do a Zygon? What’s it going to look like?’ I remember going to Roger Murray-Leach [Production Designer] and saying ‘I’ve read somewhere in a sci-fi story about a sort of flying eye’ - we had it in this jungle - and I thought it would be terrific as a sort of monitoring guard in the sky. It’s so easy to build an eye, isn't it? So I went to the designers and said ‘Can we do this without CSO overlay?’ Because in those days , it took forever. You couldn’t afford the studio time to do scenes with continuous overlay, basically we had the budget and the shooting time of a soap opera, but in soap operas people just go to the pub and sit down and talk, it’s dead easy to shoot that, you can shoot yards of that, but we were doing adventure stories. So I said to Roger Murray-Leach that I wanted to do this flying eye but it can’t be CSO, we can’t afford the time. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s easy’ we’ll just put it on a bit of wire and you won’t see it because we’re shooting on film, and that was it, just whizzed it down a wire, so I knew we could do that, so we left it in the script.

On Dudley Simpson and the use of sound in his era:

The only post-production we had was sound post-production. You assembled the show and you could edit it a little bit, but essentially, you came out of the studio with what you were going to put out on the screen. You chopped it a bit, and maybe played around with it but not very much and we had no visual post-production whatsoever, so that’s the big difference between what you saw in those clips, some of which was quite laughable in a way in terms of effects because we had to make the effects happen in real time in the studio so there was a limit to what we could do. Sparks machines and a few shading things over the desk and stuff, but now of course they have digital computerised stuff. I was watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King on telly last night and it’s just unbelievable. Of course, some of that, they can do in the new series, so it was really hard to get anything special, but the one thing was we could do these sound dubs and put everything into them. I used to love that, it was great.

Dudley Simpson [television composer] – we used to call him Sidley Dumpson, or Barry Letts did – he was a wonderful Australian guy who was a very talented composer and he got the programme, he absolutely got it. We tried one or two other composers including Geoffrey Bergon who actually did a very good job before he was famous and did Brideshead Revisited. Dudley was terrific and I used to love the dubs.

On Leela, Sarah-Jane Smith, and the female Companions:

My idea was that it would be nice to have a character like Leela that was uncivilised so you got that clash between them. It was really the Professor Higgins, Pygmalion thing. I don’t think we got quite as much mileage out of that as we could have done really.

Was Leela - in Vicky Nargle’s words - an “intergalactic suffragette”?

I don’t remember at the time getting that feminine feedback, to be honest. Though I think you’re right, because in those days, if you look at a lot of other television, the female roles were often the sidekicks, and they are, let’s be honest, a lot of the Doctor Who girls are like that. Barry Letts wanted Lis Sladen’s character to be more of a modern woman, so he made her a journalist. Of course there was The Avengers, so there was something in the air that women heroines could do stuff.

On the Daleks and whether he had a favourite villain:

The Daleks were foisted on me, I didn’t really want the Daleks. If you look at what I did that first season when they didn’t know who was going to take over and they didn’t know who the Doctor was going to be - this was in 1974. They thought, right, let’s go back to famous monsters and we’ll be safe, even if we’ve got Mr Pastry playing the Doctor - don’t you know who Mr Pastry was? He was a guy on a kids’ show but inappropriate really for the role – so they were playing it safe with old monsters.

I wanted to move away from that and take it more towards science-fiction, or have more science-fiction stories and not have every story based on it being a variation of Invasion of Earth. I’d read quite widely science fiction and dystopian fantasy. Now they look fantastic, the Cybermen and so on,  but in those days you knew it was an actor in a rubber or polystyrene suit, so to just keep trundling out monsters that were actors walking around in funny costumes was not my idea of what you could do with the show. What I did in a way was to deliberately and consciously divide up what I used to call ‘the monstrous element’ in the narratives so that they might not just be a monster, but there had to be something that was monstrous going on, and then something else, so there’d be elements that would add up overall to a kind of spooky and threatening feeling.

If you look at a lot of my stories, they haven’t got those sorts of rubber suit monsters, they’ve got something else. When I was lumbered with The Genesis of the Daleks – it was a good script actually, a very good script – and we beefed it up a bit and then I said to David Maloney Ddirector], ‘Look, we’ve got to make this darker and better’. So to come back to who’s my favourite villain, although Davros is not my favourite villain, I think he’s quite memorable, the way we visualised him, the way he was created. You need a good villain, don’t you? You need a good antagonist for the Doctor.

Did you follow the show after you finished producing it?

No, not really. I wanted to get on and do other things, so I’m afraid I didn’t. I think I watched a few episodes to see what they were doing and also because I had a loyalty and wanted to know about Tom and Louise [Jameson] and what was going on, so I did watch a bit but I basically got on doing other things.

On what he’d have done with another series of Doctor Who?

The idea in my head was that we’d do stories that would be a bit more, what you’d now call Indiana Jones-type stories - though this was before Indiana Jones - more adventure stories a bit like that. That was one idea I had, and probably a bit more pure sci-fi concepts as well, a mixture of that.

What do you think of the current Doctor Who?

I watched most of Christopher Eccleston’s and I thought they were fabulous. I think Russell T Davies is a genius. He really is, because bringing the programme back could have been a total disaster. It had fizzled out, let’s be honest, and why would they bring something back that could be so catastrophic? But he took everything that was good in the formula and moved it on into a modern idiom in the way it was written, acted and produced, and then with all the special effects and the action that could now take place, he could make mini-movies each week, essentially. I think he did a fantastic job. He put in more of an emotional tug in the relationships which we didn’t do that much. It wasn’t the formula really and so I think he reinvented the show brilliantly, but it could have been a total disaster. Now, I think Steven Moffat has taken on that mantle and has done a good job. I loved the Christopher Eccleston stuff, and I saw quite a bit of David Tennant and thought he was great as well, with some really good stories.

Was he approached prior to the 2005 revival by Russell T Davies or later, Steven Moffat for advice?

No [feigns outrage, laughter] Funnily enough, because I knew Christopher Eccleston, I rang up Russell - I didn’t really know him at all - but I’d probably met him once or twice en passant. I felt I had to ring him up after that very first episode, Rose, because I just thought it was such a spectacular success. I rang him up and said ‘This is just wonderful and well done’, and he was very nice and said ‘Look, this would not have happened if it hadn’t been for you Philip and your series, I grew up watching your shows and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.’

Funnily enough, I knew Mark Gatiss - not terribly well - but Mark had been telling me for several years that Russell wanted to get Doctor Who back again, and that was the only reason he’d ever taken up writing for television! He’d written some very good shows already, and I just laughed, I thought Mark was joking, but he wasn’t, Russell absolutely had this master plan to get the show back on! I think he took what inspired him as a young man and he carried the flame until he was in a position of power so that he could bring the show back again, it was amazing.

On Peter Capaldi and what makes a good Doctor:

Somebody asked me what I think of Peter Capaldi and I think he’s fantastic, a wonderful choice and great actor. There’s something about Peter Capaldi that’s always there in Peter Capaldi role, although they can be very, very different. There’s a sort of power and energy, there’s something there, he’s charismatic. I think the best actors that have made the best Doctors are the ones that bring something of themselves and it’s there at the centre of their portrayal of the Doctor. That’s what Tom brought. He had a wonderful voice which carried with it all this sort of morality and goodness. That was his heroic strength.”

On the Big Finish audio plays he’s currently developing:

Big Finish had been doing quite a lot with Tom and Louise, so they said have I got any stories or any ideas that were left over from forty years ago? I said ‘No, but I’ve got elements of ideas’ so I’ve worked some stories out, and they’ve done two now, they’re recording the second one, and there’s going to be another three, four, or five if I think enough up. I think they want to do two CDs.

Are his new audio plays are inspired by stories from his era of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that I was very fond of The Talons of Weng Chiang, so there might be something that might be in that area. And another show of mine that I was fond of was called The Masque of Mandragora which was set in Renaissance Italy – well, it was filmed at Portmeirion but it was meant to be Renaissance Italy – so there’s another historical one.

The idea is for them to be the sort of stories that would have been from that era, so they’re for Tom and Louise, and the way the stories are developed are in that idiom really. The first one’s out in November I think.

Philip Hinchcliffe, thank you very much!

Many thanks to Wayne Imms. Find out more about Space' excellent series of events, here, and come back next week to read the Q&A from Utopia, Pulling, and Matilda the Musical writer, Dennis Kelly.

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