There’s a rumour that Mark Gatiss is producing/writing a TV special docudrama about the original creation of Doctor Who, back in 1963. The more I think about it, the better this idea sounds – as Waris Hussain, first ever director of the show, pointed out recently on panels at Gallifrey One and in an interview with Radio Free Skaro, you couldn’t make this story up!
The youngest ever producer, and only female producer in drama at the BBC, 27 year old Verity Lambert. 20-something West Indian director, Waris Hussain, who got the job because he was the most junior director at the BBC, and the only one who couldn’t say no. Brash Canadian with the big ideas, Sydney Newman. No budget. The crappiest, oldest studio available. And, oh, the first episode they made was so bad that they almost all got sacked – and had to make it from scratch, all over again (there was no such thing as a “pilot” at the BBC at that time). Together, they made magic, a show that is still being made nearly 50 years later. THIS IS A STORY THAT MAKES NO SENSE.
Verity Lambert fascinates me – I’m a sucker for stories about real life women who had amazing careers against the odds, and she is particularly intriguing. Despite an immensely privileged education at Roedean and the Sorbonne, she started out as a shorthand typist, and worked her way up through the admin ranks before making it as a production assistant, where she famously argued and fought for her opinions with her bosses, and somehow still managed to get promoted to producer! (though as she admits in the YouTube interview I posted below, she wanted to be a director, and simply couldn’t get into it because of her gender)
We fans tend to only think about Verity’s involvement in Doctor Who in those crucial first three years, but she also produced and/or created all kinds of amazing, groundbreaking television, from Rumpole of the Bailey and The Naked Civil Servant to Jonathan Creek. You certainly can’t pigeonhole her work as being obviously female-oriented – indeed, she often worked on supremely “masculine” shows such as Minder – but she also provided and supported some fantastic roles for actresses. One of my favourite shows of all time is Class Act, a bizarre romp adventure starring Joanna Lumley, John Bowe and Nadine Garner, which not only passes the Bechdel Test but thumbs its nose at it. Verity received an OBE for her contribution to film and television, and died at age 71 in 2007 only days after the announcement that she was to receive the Working Title Films lifetime achievement award.
There’s an infamous picture of Verity using one of the Mechanoid props to light her cigarette, which I think tells you a lot about her personality! She was the one who fought to keep the Daleks in the show, when her bosses determined not to allow “bug-eyed monsters” in what was supposed to be an educational programme. And, of course, she was right. But being right and good isn’t always enough to get ahead in any industry, let alone television, and Verity had to argue for her right to do her job on a regular basis – even William Hartnell, the show’s first lead actor, was dubious at first that such a young woman could be a capable producer.
Luckily, she convinced him otherwise!
It’s easy sometimes to get cynical about the lack of female producers, directors and writers over the show’s long history, but very important I think to remember the ones we did have, and their vital influence over the success of the show.
EDIT: Thanks to the Jacqueline Hill blog for your lovely response to this post – I’d never heard those parts about the professional relationship between Jacqueline and Verity, and really appreciate knowing it!