I doubt that Doctor Who’s uberfans from the 1980s often get compared to Tudor politicians. That would be disproportionate as even Cromwell wouldn’t rank that low on any scale of amorality. However, while reading the sex-for-toys chapter of Richard Marson’s (RM) recent book, “The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner”, I was irresistibly reminded of the scene at the end of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” where Richard Rich (spoiler warning for anyone who didn’t pay attention in History or in Film Studies) is rewarded for perjuring himself at the trial of Sir Thomas More by being appointed Attorney General for Wales.
As Rich leaves the court, More says to him: “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales???” When it comes to RM’s seedier revelations about the uberfans of the 80s, just replace “soul” with “arse” and “Wales” with “fan access”. To want to be a big fish in a pond as stagnant as 80s DW fandom, you have to have had either catastrophically low self-esteem or a bizarre sense of proportion in life.
Reading this book, you need to keep in mind that the story of John Nathan-Turner (JNT: I refuse to add the hyphen to the initials) and Doctor Who is a tragedy neither at the macro level of the nation’s TV history nor even at the micro level of JNT’s life. That’s not necessarily a fault of the book. When you write a biography of a fairly obscure individual, the minutiae of his life and experiences are always going to seem more important than they really are because you’re examining how they affect someone on a personal level.
This is the problem with the book’s title. While much of what happens in this tale of a dysfunctional media world may be unfortunate or regrettable, the only thing even remotely scandalous is the sex-for-toys stuff, and then only if one accepts the gutter press definition of scandal. When an old man in a dirty mac flashes at you in a park, it may merit distaste and disapproval but it’s hardly scandalous. I’d be willing to bet that the sex was more interesting on the set of The Tomorrow People. When the scandal only relates to the sex-for-toys, you can’t very well complain if the tabloids interpret the title as an invitation to characterise the book by its sexual content.
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of book titles, I’d like to put in a plug for my own forthcoming biography of the Fourth Doctor. To avoid any scandalous tabloid headlines, I’ve decided to exclude even the slightest reference to failed marriages or sexual partners. Let’s see the Daily Mail try to make a scandal out of that. The preliminary title is “The Women of Tom Baker”.
“The Life and Times of John Nathan-Turner” is stylistically very much a book of two halves. The hinge separating the two halves is roughly the Logopolis-Castrovalva changeover but I doubt that was intentional. I found the first half of the book much the weaker and the harder read because there’s little sense of a driving narrative. RM sits back and allows the story to be told by quotes from interviews with various interested parties. While one can excuse the lack of an authorial voice as a stylistic decision by the author, there’s a distinct lack of an authorial direction to the story in the first half which can sometimes drift into a linking narrative playing second fiddle to the interview quotes.
RM has been accused of self-indulgence in allowing his personal opinions to leak into the book. Not surprising in a book written by a fan, but RM’s personal opinions don’t leak in enough to relieve the tendency towards colourlessness in the first half. As a result, when RM does drop in the very rare line of personal opinion, it has a distinctly jarring effect. By that stage, the reader is so used to the author’s habit of standing back from the narrative and allowing the quoted interviews to do all the story telling and opinionating (opining?) that his personal interventions seem unfair. Given his otherwise disinterested position, when he does pass personal judgment it’s as if he’s telling us something which is indisputable fact rather than just his own opinion. Two of the worst examples of this are when RM informs us out of the blue that a particular action of Anthony Ainley’s was “petty” and when he suddenly stops referring to Ian Levine by name and calls him JNT’s “lapdog”. It’s some achievement to make one feel that Ian Levine is hard done by. This is indeed self-indulgence as the first half could have been so much less of a slog to read if he’d given full rein to an authorial voice and not just when he wanted to be personally catty. Even if one could excuse these as just opinion, the use of the phrase “the toothy Lalla Ward” is the sort of gauche rudeness worthy of a fanzine, and a 1980s fanzine at that.
It’s always darkest before the dawn though and the departure of the best ever Doctor (oops, my authorial voice slipped in for a second there) completely transforms the book. It’s well known that, by the time JNT took over as producer, Tom Baker had become an overweeningly dominant presence on Doctor Who. Was JNT so cowed by his star that it was only when he left in favour of a new man that JNT could become the real driving force of the show? That’s certainly the impression because, from roughly that point onwards, the book throws off the shackles of a rather laboured and directionless first half and the chance to tell JNT’s story really begins.
The stylistic change is almost miraculous. Suddenly the book becomes a page turner as we get a strongly driven, warts & all story in which the quotes from interested parties smoothly and very effectively serve and complement the narrative rather than vice versa. RM still withholds an authorial voice but the reader scarcely notices as the events themselves have now seized the attention. It reminded me a little of “The Crimson Horror” where you’re so seized by the verve and élan of the storytelling that any flaws tend to pass you by. Where RM’s personal comment does leak through to the page now, it’s usually some very apposite digs at the BBC’s tendency to roll over at the slightest criticism and start to consume itself in an orgy of masochism.
The breadth of interviewing RM has done for this book is impressive but it could have benefited from some pruning. It’s confusing for the reader to be offered the opinions of multiple contradicting interviewees on a particular point if the author gives us no hint as to whom to believe. It may be common knowledge for those like RM who penetrated fandom’s most intimate circle in the 80s that cameraman #3 is the soul of honesty while make-up girl #5 is a bitter and twisted old liar, but that’s no help to the reader. One interviewee tells us that Tom Baker completely blanked Gary Downie after JNT’s death while another tells us that they regularly corresponded. Why couldn’t the author research which was accurate or just drop the whole exchange?
One is at times left to either toss a coin as to who is telling the truth or to go with the interviewee who seems the least spiteful. Because these interviews contain spite by the bucket load as scores are settled, stink bombs thrown and history rewritten to favour the living. It’s the sort of de haut en bas spite peculiar to people with an overinflated opinion of their own merits. The sort of people who’d dismiss Barry Letts as “dull”. When you’ve listened to the umpteenth DVD commentary of Janet Fielding maundering about her fucking hair, your jaw drops at her audacity in calling Gary Downie “pedestrian”. If you’ve had the chance to work in TV in an age where people with a modicum of talent could be permanently pissed out of their minds without fear of the sack, it’s a mystery why’d you’d be so bitter about it.
When you reach the point where RM treats us to two interviewees arguing over who drove JNT to the clap clinic, you’d think it couldn’t sink lower. Until we meet the fans. For self-aggrandisement without any peer or basis, you’d think you couldn’t beat Doctor Who’s present day fan Establishment until you’re reminded of what they were like in the 1980s. People who were selling their arses to climb one rung higher than their rivals on the ladder of mediocrity. Who would have thought that Russell T Davies himself (the doyenne of fan-bashers) was himself one of the sad little obsessives eagerly buying the fanzine equivalent of the Daily Mail to feast on campaigns to unseat a DW showrunner? Who’s the “straight white male” in a bedsit now, Russell?
The real dilemma for the fan reader is that, on the one hand, we’re shown an energetic producer badly treated by the BBC. On the other hand, we get the impression that the BBC may have been perfectly justified in painting JNT into his Doctor Who corner and then dispensing with his services after the cancellation of the show. The long list of ideas for new shows put forward by JNT in his attempts to break out of his corner verges on the toe curling. JNT’s supposed producer skills are also pretty hard to pin down if you want something more than making a tight budget go a long way. One also wonders if BBC management knew a little too much about what was going on with the “barkers” for the good of JNT’s career. Jonathan Powell gets the shitty end of the book’s stick but, when you’ve seen his sensible but ignored suggestions for rescuing the suicide pact which was “Trial of a Time Lord”, you begin to wonder if he wasn’t justified in his contempt for JNT as a producer. You also wonder, if someone like Powell could see the flaws in that story, why JNT couldn’t find a script editor who could do so. More ammunition against the idea that the BBC was throwing away a rare talent.
This is a fine book overall and well worth a read for anyone wanting a well researched record of what actually happened in the period. It finally taught me exactly why one friend loathes Eric Saward with a passion beyond reason. The book is perhaps less useful if you’re interested in who was at fault for what. I’d add a warning that, while you’ll come away from the book much better informed about 1980s Doctor Who, you probably won’t come away fonder of it or any of the participants with the possible exception of the glorious June Hudson who only has nice words to say about anyone.
Many have commented on how sad the end of the book is and, while his health problems certainly were, on the whole the sadness is relative. Millions were made redundant in the 1980s and few of them ended up as surprisingly well off financially as JNT seems to have done. I lost count of the number of properties he and Gary Downie ended up owning. What sadness there is in JNT’s end is leavened enormously by the story of his funeral which RM tells wonderfully and at which I confess I shed a few tears (on both readings). This is why I think that JNT had a good life rather than a sad one. He got away with murder doing what he loved for longer than he probably deserved. Despite his great shortcomings as a producer (just pick any era of that appalling Doctor Who decade), JNT had a long stretch in the limelight and was surrounded by lots of friends. The picture of his coffin sliding away to the accompaniment of a packed house of his friends singing and tap-dancing in the aisles was the perfect ending to the story of his life.
How many of even the most uber of fans could expect that sort of turnout at their funeral?