Sunday 20 May 2012

The Road to Doctor Who - Origins part 1.

When the programme returned in 2005 with Rose a lot of us would have noticed that the name of the electrician was a Mr Wilson. This was a little nod to Donald Wilson, who could be said to have started the whole Doctor Who ball rolling. Wilson was Head of the Script Department at the BBC in 1962, when the Corporation first started to consider Science Fiction material for possible production.

He commissioned a report from staff members Donald Bull and Alice Frick. They identified that Sci-Fi was primarily an American genre, with only a handful of British writers who could be approached for ideas.
Frick worked on a further report with colleague John Braybon. Various ideas were discussed, with a view to cost and feasibility. Audience identification was a big factor. Robots were out - too obviously men in suits. Bug eyed monsters were also off the menu. It was felt that the audience would not buy into the studio-bound realisation of alien planets.

One idea could have seen us all Doomwatch fans instead of Doctor Who fans, as it concerned a team of scientific trouble-shooters.
Another idea that did keep cropping up was that of Time Travel. It was this idea which was then worked on and refined, and would eventually evolve into our favourite programme.

Wilson brought in Sydney Newman, late of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and who had come to England to take on a senior drama department role with the commercial TV company ABC. Newman was head-hunted over to the BBC to become Head of Drama.

He was a Sci-Fi fan himself, and inherited the development of the BBC's own Sci-Fi product. The aim was to create a children-orientated adventure series to fill a Saturday teatime slot. In the afternoon you had the sports flagship Grandstand, and in the evening programmes for young adults / teenagers (such as Juke Box Jury) gave way to programming for adult viewers later on. Something was needed to fill the gap between the sport and the evening viewing - something for the kids in particular and the family in general.

Newman worked on further refinements of the programme concept with C.E.Webber (known as 'Bunny'. Not entirely sure why. Maybe C.E. stood for carrot eater?).
The central character would not be a time travelling alien at this stage. He was envisaged as someone from Earth's future for quite a while - a scientific rebel.
The first producer brought on board was Rex Tucker.

It would be fair to say that his heart was never really in the job. He certainly wasn't happy when Sydney Newman brought in a young production assistant with whom he had worked at ABC - Verity Lambert.

A relieved Tucker quickly moved onto other projects, and Lambert found herself producer of the show in her own right. Tucker would eventually return to the programme to direct The Gunfighters.

Initial story lines were coming together, and the principle characters were beginning to form. The main figure would be the Doctor, a mysterious old man who had a time machine which he did not know how to operate properly. Two school teachers - Cliff and Lola - would get caught up in his adventures. There was some debate about having a younger character. Some audience research suggested children didn't like watching characters of their own age - preferring more mature heroes and heroines. Newman felt a younger character was essential for the audience to relate to. As with most things, Newman got his way. The character that would evolve into Susan was at one point a human schoolgirl called Bridget - known as Biddy - and a royal princess from the Doctor's time.

The time machine would be disguised as an everyday object (a genius idea in concept as well as production costs and practicalities).
One story idea that almost became the first ever Doctor Who adventure involved the main characters becoming miniaturised. They would have to face various dangers traversing Cliff's science lab at the school.
It was quickly realised that this would be difficult to achieve in practical terms, so a trip to prehistory was pushed up the schedule.
The first director assigned to the programme was a young Anglo-Indian named Waris Hussein.

Quite what the rest of the BBC were making of all this can only be guessed at. The Corporation at that time was very much white, Anglo-Saxon, C of E, middle class, pipe smoking, ex-Spitfire pilot, tweed jacketed - and that was just the women. All this effort was going into a mere children's show, being made by a young woman and a young Asian man.
I am sure there was very little support or enthusiasm for the project, as it moved ever closer towards the studio.

Next: Radiophonics & Casting.

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