Classic Doctor Who: people who went the extra mile

In this week of Doctor Who celebration, Andrew salutes just a few of the individuals whose talent and hard work made the show what it is...

In the history of Doctor Who there are many names in the end credits that always seem to stand out. For some reason, I always look out for Alec Wheal in Eighties Who credits or, since 2005, the Script Editor. Over the years there have been hundreds of unsung contributors behind the scenes, and this article seeks to celebrate a handful of those who put in one helluva slog for our benefit.

Oh, and in researching this article I discovered that Dorka Nieradzik – who worked on Logopolis, Revelation of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis to name but a few – now appears to be Clive Owen’s personal Hair and Make Up Artist.

It’s not really relevant or anything, but I felt like it was something I had to share.


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1. Delia Derbyshire

Assisted by Dick Mills, Derbyshire made the original version of the theme music using laborious methods – cutting, splicing and tempo-adjustments – to produce music that has a legacy beyond Doctor Who. It’s an important piece in terms of electronic music, made prior to any commercial synthesiser. That the tune has remained the same is also a testament to Ron Grainer’s composition skills, but when you compare his version and Derbyshire’s, well…it’s fairly obvious that all her hard work was totally worth it.

Ron Grainer’s version of the theme

Delia Derbyshire’s version

Legend (and Wikipedia, though often they’re the same thing) has it that, when Ron Grainer first heard Derbyshire’s work, he asked ‘Did I write that?’

‘Most of it,’ she replied.


2. The War Games

After two stories fell through, producer Derrick Sherwin asked writer Malcolm Hulke and incoming Script Editor Terrance Dicks to finish off the Troughton era by filling the sudden ten-episode gap, introducing the Doctor’s own people and setting up the Earthbound stories of Season 7. Production would start in three months. Having more than four hours of television to write, and one heck of a tick-list to incorporate, might have floored lesser writers. Fortunately Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke had a distinct advantage: they were Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. Anyone who’s seen The Silurians knows that these two are familiar with four-ply, quality padding.

All this goes to show is that if you get the right people in half the work is done. On top of pouring out new, inventive and mythic material (ultimately a little repetetive, but that’s hardly surprising considering the running time), director David Maloney’s suggestions (including the Doctor’s communicating with the Time Lords using white boxes, as seen again in The Doctor’s Wife) resulted in a story that completely deserves the adjective ‘epic’.

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3. Begonia Pope

In The Ark in Space the Doctor declares that his singed scarf is irreplaceable, having been knitted for him by a ‘witty little knitter’ called Madame Nostradamus.

In reality, the scarf was just one in a long line of combinations of happy accidents and hard work: Costume Designer James Acheson (who has gone on to kit many a superhero out in Hollywood) had the idea that a scarf would complement the Fourth Doctor’s outfit, and so asked his friend Begonia Pope to make something colourful out of the wool he bought her.

James Acheson – not being entirely knowledgeable in the field of knitware – bought quite a lot of wool.

Begonia Pope decided to use all of it.

She didn’t have to, but in the absence of precise instructions she just went for it. The end result had to be shortened slightly to be rendered merely impractical, and that’s why everyone should try knitting at least once in their lives (preferably without really knowing anything about knitting).

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4. David Agnew

Graham Williams’ time on the show seemed immensely pressurised. Not only were there edicts from all sides on how Things Should Be, but inflation and industrial action meant it was difficult enough to make the show look good. In the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) there was pressure from the public for the show to somehow match the effects work of those films (not that they didn’t give it a bloody good go). With stories already struggling to be made, Williams and Script Editor Anthony Read decided to abandon a storyling featuring a stadium-sized forum filled with cat-people and write their own season finale: The Invasion of Time (1978). Then they had to use a loophole in funding to give themselves enough time to film (strike action meant Christmas programming was favoured at the time) as long as they were Outside Broadcast. This is the reason that the inside of the TARDIS in The Invasion of Time is mainly achieved using location shoots.

Having managed to wing that one successfully, Williams and new Script Editor Douglas Adams found themselves in a similar position for 1979’s City of Death. David Fisher’s original Bulldog Drummond-inspired scripts needed work, but Fisher was busy with other writing commitments and a divorce, leading to a three-day coffee binge at Williams’ house. Between Williams, Adams, and director Michael Hayes, a workable script that incorporated the series’ first ever overseas filming was ready to go.

Both of these scripts were attributed to ‘David Agnew’, a non de plume in use at the BBC since 1971.


5. John Nathan-Turner

The longest-serving Producer (not entirely by choice) is a divisive figure, presiding over the show’s cancellations and hiatus, but also over some of its most popular stories. While he had to be persuaded to use Robert Holmes as a writer, it was Nathan-Turner who agreed to let Graeme Harper direct for the show. The Producer was also a dab-hand behind the camera, occasionally filling in as the Second Unit Director, most famously filming shots of the Raston Warrior Robot’s fight in The Five Doctors.

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Nathan-Turner’s greatest feat of perserverance came in 1988, when the discovery of asbestos in television centre meant that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was temporarily cancelled. Space was found in a Bristol warehouse, but that was reallocated to a show deemed more important. The asbestos was discovered on the 27th of May, and the actors were only contracted til mid-June. To combat this, Nathan-Turner and director Alan Wareing asked the BBC if they could erect a tent to finish the circus-based story (an idea initiated by the producer), only to be told it had to be on BBC-owned land, reducing them to the parking lot of BBC Elstree where traffic noise and a nearby aereodrome would provide further problems.

Despite this, the work of Nathan-Turner, Wareing, and designer David Laskey ensured that the production was completed. Twenty-five years on, and Shadow of the Noose – the show that got the warehouse space in Bristol – is yet to inspire any of its cast to write a song about the experience.

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