John [Nathan-Turner], never backward in coming forward, took advantage of tis to lobby [Bill] Slater about his aspirations to produce. "One day, during an annual interview," he recalled in his memoirs, "I restated my ambition yet again. 'Well, if you're serious, you'd better learn the PUM's job [Production Unit Manager] by doing it, then the script editor's job, then we'll talk again.'There is no more controversial figure in the history of Doctor Who than John Nathan-Turner, the show's producer for the last 11 years years of its first run. And, apart from the man himself, there can surely be few better qualified to write about it than Richard Marson, who cut his teeth as a teenage correspondent for Doctor Who Magazine and then went into television production himself. On the strength of this I went out and bought Marson's biography of Verity Lambert.
'When do I start?'
'Tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned.'
It's a very good biography, portraying its central character warts and all, through his own interviews, interviews with others at the time, interviews with his co-workers and friends and lovers specially for the biography (Peter Davison comes across as a particularly thoughtful commentator on Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who and what was really going on), and the copious documentary evidence that is available from various sources. It's difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job (or indeed wanting to).
As in his own memoirs, JN-T comes across as a gifted but flawed character. He was addicted to spectacle and activity rather than plot, characterisation or reflection; without really trusting them sufficiently he relied too much on his script editors, the longest-serving of whom, Eric Saward, savagely and viciously turned on him. He was usually drunk by the afternoon and often bad-tempered (perhaps not unconnected). Some blame must attach to the BBC hierarchy, who could find nobody else to take on Doctor Who, and could find no other use for him, leaving both to slowly spiral into decline.
In a couple of memorable passages, Marson catalogues the sexual interactions between JN-T, his partner Gary Downie, and male fans in their late teens and early 20s. It's clear that neither was a predator on the scale of Jimmy Savile, and also that Downie was a much more unpleasant character than JN-T. But, while one can have sympathy for the fact that the homosexual age of consent was still 21 until 1994, one can't have much sympathy for JN-T's exploitation of the relationship he had with enthusiastic young men, and even less so with Downie whose behaviour sounds like it crossed the line of what would be legal today (this is my view; Marson doesn't seem to think so).
Marson's forensic analysis of what actually happened during the Great Cancellation Crisis of 1986 is surely going to be the classic account; he recounts what happened in the last week of February 1985 almost hour by hour, JN-T stuck at a convention in America as the story raced out of control behind him. He also has a decently brief but clear account of the circumstances of Patrick Troughton's demise. And the story of JN-T's decline into ill health and early death (at 54, on 1 May 2002) is a very sad one of talent misdirected and eventually wasted.
Most of this book will only be really interesting to Who fans, because Doctor Who took up most of JN-T's career (he was hired by the BBC in 1968, and worked on Doctor Who almost continuously from 1977 until he was fired in 1990). But I think there are some wider lessons as well, about the shift of BBC internal culture leaving some people behind who were not ready for change, about the interactions between show-runners and fans, and about the ways in which creativity can be a curse to individual creators.