August 14th, 2016


Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert, by Richard Marson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Other than this official scrutiny, Verity knew that she was likely to be the focus of a different kind of attention in her new role and, as a consequence, she was careful with her image, choosing well-cut expensive clothes to offset her well-cut, expensive hair, discreet jewellery and killer heels. She was adopting her version of what would later be termed 'power dressing', acquiring a style to belie her youth and counterpoint her natural authority. She was, she later said, 'a bit of a freak' and arrived when both her new bosses, Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, were on leave so must have felt all the more exposed. But it is not true that she knew no one else at the BBC; Newman had already brought over some of the old crowd from ABC and her friend Irene Shubik would soon follow her.
On the strength of Marson's biography of John Nathan-Turner, the last producer of Old Who, I bought this, his biography of the show's first producer. I found it a somewhat frustrating read. As an examination of Verity Lambert's career in her own terms, it's compelling and exhaustive - friends, enemies, ex-husband and lovers are all interviewed and provide a three-dimensional perspective of a driven, creative personality. It's a more cheerful book than the Nathan-Turner biography because Lambert's career was far more successful; she died in her 70s, a month before she was due to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Women in Film and Television Awards, and the day before the 44th anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who.

(Some of her personal effects were auctioned on eBay after her death, and I ended up with her complimentary copy of the 2003 DVD of The Three Doctors. She had not opened it - she says on one of her last DVD commentaries that she found it difficult to watch the deterioration of William Hartnell's health even from her own time as producer, so it's hardly surprising that she gave The Three Doctors a miss.)

I was aware of her early triumph in successfully handling a live broadcast of a play where the actor playing one of the key characters suddenly died in the middle of filming, and of course of her contribution to Doctor Who; I must say I had forgotten about her contributions to so many subsequent successes of television and film - Adam Adamant Lives!, Shoulder to Shoulder, Rumpole of the Bailey, Clockwise, A Cry in the Dark, G.B.H., Sleepers and Jonathan Creek.

The big flop was Eldorado, which I actually rather liked in the day; Marson's analysis of what went wrong is interesting but doesn't quite land its punches. For me, the two obvious mistakes were the initial casting of so many weak actors (which would appear to have been entirely Julia Smith's fault rather than Lambert's) and the over-ambitious timescale which led to early episodes being filmed on a set that was still being built (definitely Lambert's fault rather than anyone else's). It would have been interesting to see if a connecting line could be drawn between the Eldorado fiasco and Lambert's other big professional setbacks - the court case on intellectual property theft for the concept behind Rock Follies, which she lost, and her feuds with Irene Shubik and a few others.

There were three other areas which I wish Marson had stepped back to explore in more depth. The first is the overall cultural role of film and television in itself. We rather get the impression that Lambert's work was important because she did it, rather than looking at the wider social import. There is loads of research available on this, much of it citing Lambert, and it's a shame that none of it is used here. The second is feminism - the extract I give above illustrates the difficulties that she faced in her early years because of her gender, but it's irritating that this pops up over and over as incidental detail rather than as a unifying theme. The third is Jewishness (if that's the right word). Lambert was strongly identified as a Jew, whether she wanted to be or not, and she varied on that at different times in her career. But it would have been nice to read a bit more background about how Jews fitted into British society in general in Lambert's lifetime, and into the entertainment industry in particular.

Having said that, it's still a better book than the John Nathan-Turner biography because it has a more interesting subject, and perhaps has learned a little from the previous one.