Who & Me – Barry Letts

Barry Letts was an actor, writer, director and producer for decades, mainly for the BBC, and is most famous as the series producer of Doctor Who from Jon Pertwee’s second story in 1969 to Tom Baker’s first in 1974 returning as executive producer at the end of Baker’s long run in the part in 1980. He also directed several stories for Doctor Who starting with the Patrick Troughton story ‘The Enemy of the World’ and wrote others although this was done using pseudonyms as the BBC at the time did not approve of the series producer also writing episodes. The front cover shows Barry, in the striped shirt, and Jon Pertwee, in full costume as his dandy Doctor Who leaning on a dalek. Terrence Dicks, who wrote the foreword, was script editor on Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974 and these two men formed a strong partnership which drove the programme back out of the doldrums of the end of the Troughton era and up the viewing ratings. Katy Manning played Jo Grant, one of the Doctor’s companions during this period.

The book doesn’t only cover Doctor Who but delves back into Barry Letts’ decades long acting career and how he progressed into a writer, then director before finally being persuaded to be a producer, which he would only do if he was still allowed to direct the occasional story line. It is worth noting for anyone who only knows the modern re-invention of Doctor Who that back in the 1960’s there would be over forty episodes a year, every year, and stories would normally be told over four, five, six or even seven episodes rather than the at most two episode individual stories in modern Who. The workload was tremendous and Letts was responsible for improving the process by reducing the number of episodes to twenty five a year along with recording episodes in pairs so reducing the need for constantly building and taking down sets so allowing more time for recording along with other changes to scheduling.

Letts is brutally honest about his successes and failures over the years and readily admits things he got wrong such as his first directing job on ‘The Enemy of the World’ which lacked pace in numerous parts especially in the one surviving episode which definitely drags out the material. I watched this again after reading the book and can see why he really wasn’t happy about the end result. In complete contrast he was also responsible for possibly my favourite story of ‘classic Doctor Who’ which was ‘The Daemons’ which came to its climax around my ninth birthday and with it’s story about black magic and the raising of a demon absolutely enthralled and terrified me as a young child. It also has probably the best line for The Brigadier in all his appearances instructing one of his soldiers “Chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid!“. Along the way he explains a lot of what both the director and producer actually did on TV programmes of the time and this was really interesting as it a side of the making of TV that isn’t covered very often. He also covers the work of Terrence Dicks in just how a script comes to be agreed and written from the initial ideas to outlines, then initial script, leading to fine tuning with cuts and additions to make each episode not only the right length but also to maintain the flow of the story.

So here we are at the end of our second season which is where I always intended to end this first volume.

Start of chapter 22 of Who & Me

The final chapter of the book starts with the words above, but sadly Letts didn’t even live to see this volume get released as he died in October 2009 aged 84, shortly before publication, leading to a final short postscript by his family thanking people for their good wishes after his death was announced. The book was an interesting read and he dropped so many hints of things that he wanted to cover in a later volume eventually leading up to Tom Baker’s first story as Doctor Who which would have tied back nicely to the first book in my August Sci-fi autobiography readings. It is such a pity that the cancer he had been suffering from for years got him before he could even start on the second book as I’m sure we would have learnt a lot more about the jobs of producer and director.

The Man in the Rubber Mask – Robert Llewellyn

Continuing my August theme of autobiographies by British sci-fi actors and writers and in complete contrast to last week’s Who on Earth is Tom Baker this book by Robert Llewellyn spends almost all its time talking about the making of Red Dwarf and also includes the update that was most missed in last weeks book. This, effectively second volume, added to the original from 1994 takes the total page count up to 341 rather than the 191 occupied by its first iteration and also the story from series five and the failed American pilot through to series ten and the return of Red Dwarf as a hopefully regular event. This updated edition was published by Unbound in 2013 so nineteen years after his original volume and because it concentrates on the subject implied by the cover is a considerably more interesting read for the sci-fi fan than Tom Baker’s book, although that was fun for different reasons.

For those not familiar with the series Red Dwarf is a very long running British comedy sci-fi programme set on a spaceship three million years in the future with a sole surviving human crew member along with a hologram of another of the crew created by the ships computer so that Lister doesn’t go mad. There is also The Cat, a humanoid descendent of a cat smuggled onto the ship by Lister three million years ago and the reason why he was placed into stasis as a punishment back then and why he survived the radiation leak which killed everyone else on the ship. Holly, the ship’s computer, decided not to end Lister’s stasis punishment until the radiation had fallen to a safe level, hence the millions of years leap in time.

Although the robot Kryten was introduced in series two of Red Dwarf it was supposedly a one episode appearance. however when the decision was made to bring him back in the next series as a regular character the original actor, David Ross, was no longer available and Robert Llewellyn was cast as his replacement so the book starts with series three when Llewellyn was involved. It is worth noting that at the end of almost every series it is clear from Llewellyn’s writing that there is no expectation by cast or writers that there will be another so the fact that in 2020 the feature length story ‘The Promised Land’ was first broadcast, thirty two years after series one and two and half years after the previous series twelve went out is a continuing surprise to everyone involved especially after the ten year gap between series eight and ‘Back to Earth’ which was retrospectively counted as series nine. Throughout the book Llewellyn provides considerable detail regarding the shooting of every episode which means he must have kept a diary as he is regularly bemoaning his lack of memory for his lines and refers to the rest of the cast as ‘proper actors’ who can actually remember what they are supposed to be doing. In fact he is particularly struck by Craig Charles’s apparent ability to remember a script after one or two basic read throughs. As the only member of the British cast to be involved in the disastrous, and never broadcast, American remake he also provides considerable insights as to how that went which actually seemed fine at the time once a usable script was produced.

There have been various lengthy gaps between series where Llewellyn has been up to various other writing, performing and filming opportunities including the eleven years of hosting Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4 when it looked like Red Dwarf was finally over. These are covered including what the other cast members were up to during these breaks but the book is largely concerned with Red Dwarf so although it could be read and enjoyed by somebody who has never seen the show ideally you need to have seen some if not all of the seventy three episodes and one full length TV movie. Needles to say I have…

As a side note seeing that the page count has gone up by 150, albeit with some blank pages around the start of the new section there is considerably more than 43.17% more smeg (see caption bottom right on the cover) which is roughly the figure you get if you divide the new printed pages by the total printed pages but which clearly isn’t the correct calculation as there are 148 new pages beyond the 191 original so in reality 77.49% more smeg. If you don’t know what smeg is you aren’t a Red Dwarf fan, suffice to say it is the word used instead of swearing in the scripts. This obvious, and to mathematicians mildly annoying, error is about the only bad thing I can say about the book, it was an excellent read and highly informative about not only the practical making of the shows and Robert’s regular moaning about the rubber prosthetics he had to wear for the part (which he keeps apologising for doing) but also gives an insight into the genius of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor the creators, writers and producers of the show.

Who on Earth is Tom Baker?

Every August I give myself a theme for the books that month and this year it is autobiographies of people associated with British science fiction or fantasy. I’m starting with the twenty five year old autobiography of, for me, the best Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981 and starred in 178 episodes during that time, far more than any other actor in the role.

The book is 262 pages long plus an unnumbered 8 page introduction, he doesn’t get the role he is most famous for until page 191 and leaves the job on page 229 so don’t expect huge revelations about Doctor Who despite the cover photo and indeed the title. In fact my favourite Who story in the book is when Baker desperately wanted to see a particular episode where he had been held underwater despite his deep fear of such a thing happening as he can’t swim and is terrified of water and he had never been able to see the episode as he was doing publicity tours, this is also years before home TV recording was possible. He had reached Preston on his way home by the time the episode was due and after trying to see it in the windows of TV shops none of which had it on eventually knocked on the door of a house with children’s bicycles outside and asked if they were going to watch the show. Being recognised he was led into the living room where the two children were already glued to the TV in anticipation and sat quietly at the back of the room so the children only gradually became aware that Doctor Who was sitting with them watching the show. Perfectly reasonably they couldn’t believe what was happening and it took numerous double takes, checking the TV screen and the person sitting behind them before they accepted the unlikely was actually true. The story was picked up by the local press thereby really making their school friends jealous.

Having said that there is surprising little about Doctor Who in the book Tom Baker’s life is fascinating and it is written with considerable humour. Born in 1934 he came from a poor Liverpudlian catholic family and he was very religious as a child and youth, eventually becoming a novice monk at the age of fifteen and remaining in holy orders for almost six years, initially in Jersey and later near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The description of his time in the monasteries is funny and terrible at the same time, he clearly had an awful time as a monk but this was nothing to the truly awful time he had with the family of his first wife who appear to have regarded him as little more than cheap labour for their various businesses and treated him with disdain. But his earliest ambition, as a young child in wartime Liverpool was to be an orphan… This was due to the gifts such as hats and jackets along with a card from the President that an child orphaned during the war could expect to receive from America and these were highly prized. He even told his teacher at school, when she started going round the class asking what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up, that he wanted to be an orphan and this earned him a swift trip to the headmasters office.

There are plenty of stories about his slowly building acting career, which until Doctor Who never paid enough for him not to have other jobs as well, indeed he was working as a building site labourer when he got the role of Doctor Who. Post Doctor Who there are tales of drinking in Soho clubs and bars with the likes of the artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard both notorious heavy drinkers until eventually his third wife, who he is still married to, managed to lure him away from the city to the countryside and a rural happiness that is where the book finishes. Overall it’s a good and entertaining read although I’d like an updated version, he was continued to work on film, TV and radio through most of the last twenty five years so an additional few chapters are certainly called for.

My copy of the book is the 1997 first edition and is signed by Tom Baker.