You have to feel for Peter Davison, who really was given an unenviable task when he was cast in the lead role of Doctor Who. Imagine following in the footsteps of Tom Baker, the man who was by now synonymous with the part, especially after a reign of seven years, which was longer than anybody else up to that point.
With his manic grin, overlong scarf and predilection for jelly babies, Baker’s take on the character would come to define the public’s perception of the Time Lord for decades to come, with perhaps only David Tennant getting close to breaking that seemingly unassailable hold. Baker must have appeared to be the very definition of the hard act to follow at the time, so Davison’s inheriting the mantle must have seemed like a poisoned chalice.
It was also a time of upheaval for the programme, not only due to losing its hugely popular leading man. During Baker’s last season, ratings had dipped dramatically, no doubt due in part to ITV scheduling its flashy brand new American import – Buck Rogers In The 25th Century – directly opposite Who. In the age of Star Wars having shown audiences sci-fi was no longer the domain of low budget effects, Who was beginning to look its age when faced with glossier competition.
After 18 years, the show was unceremoniously uprooted out of its traditional Saturday teatime venue, and would now be aired twice-weekly in the primetime evening slot. As ratings for the show began to recover, the series’ future looked to be much more secure, and its success in the new slot was in fact to pave the way for the BBC to launch its own bi-weekly soap opera a few short years later, EastEnders, after showing the Corporation there was an audience out there for weeknight continuing drama.
Given the upheaval being faced during this period, the story is best told by some of the people who were working behind the scenes at the time. In their latest release in The Doctors range, Reeltime Pictures give us a compilation of some half-a-dozen interviews with backroom boys (and girl) who were there to see – and participate in – the transformation which took place, taking the programme through to its twentieth anniversary, with its public profile being renewed thanks to a producer who was a great publicist and showman.
Sadly, that man – John Nathan-Turner – is no longer around, and his absence from this set leaves a noticeable gap, which is even more apparent given some of his predecessors were included on earlier releases in his DVD series. However, there is still plenty of worthy content here, with the contributors all having plenty to say on this larger-than-life – as well as somewhat contentious and controversial – figure who was to preside over the series for a decade, right up to its axing in 1989.
The set opens with Stephen Gallagher. someone who wrote only two stories for Doctor Who, but has very proudly worn his association with the show, even after becoming a literary figure who has been still able to flit back and forth between novels and TV. Perhaps only Douglas Adams has gone on to such post-Who publishing success, but Gallagjer’s love for the medium where he got his start does shine through, and he offers some fascinating stories about his experiences of writing for telly.
Another writer during Davison’s era is Barbara Clegg, whose career began on the other side of the camera, having been a cast member of early ITV soap Emergency Ward 10, before deciding on a change of career, and taking to the typewriter. Sadly, Clegg had suffered a stroke a few years before doing this interview, which has affected her memory, but a couple of family friends are on hand throughout, to help go through some mementos, and coax reminiscences from her, making for a novel – and touching – change of format.
Having both written and directed for the programme, Peter Grimwade has a rare perspective of two different disciplines and his interview here – filmed before his untimely passing in 1990 – gives us an insight into what it is like to carry out two contrasting roles. Grimwade is fantastically gossipy – and almost even bitchy at points – with his candour feeling rather refreshing. However, his responses when discussing an episode of Dramarama he wrote – widely believed to be a comment on his time on Doctor Who – come as a surprise.
Director Graham Harper helmed two classic Who tales, one being Davison’s swansong, ‘The Caves Of Androzani’, which is widely regarded as being one of Doctor Who’s finest ever stories. Harper brought a very energetic, almost cinematic style, and he managed to make a multi-camera studio setup feel much less static and far more epic. Interviewed here in 2000, years before the show returned to TV screens and his services were engaged again, you can see Harper’s obvious love for Who, as well as his eagerness to do more if it came back.
For dedicated fans of the programme, even the names which appear way down in the production credits attract a certain amount of interest, and Margot Hayhoe is one of those. Not being perhaps an obvious candidate for being interviewed, her time spent working for the BBC as both Assistant Floor Manager and Production Manager does mean that she has a breadth of experience that she can draw on, and her tales of working on non-Who output – like The Day Of The Triffids, for example – are some of her most interesting.
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Closing out the set is Dick Mills, someone whose work would have been heard on Doctor Who for almost two decades, as he provided special sounds between 1973 and 1989 as part of the legendary Radiophonic Workshop. Besides his extensive contribution to the series’ soundscape, he also has a special place in its history by helping Delia Derbyshire assemble the iconic theme music from loops of tape. Mills has managed to keep the Radiophonic Workshop alive after it had been axed by the BBC, so he is a more than worthy inclusion.
The Peter Davison Years – Behind The Scenes serves up yet another eclectic mix of talking heads. However, it does seem a shame that – unlike some earlier releases – this will be the only look at Davison’s time as the Doctor, as it feels as if the surface has only been scratched, and there is more to tell on this period of Doctor Who’s history from the people who had helped bring it to our screens. Another volume exploring this era would be more than welcome.
The Doctors: The Peter Davison Years – Behind The Scenes is out now on DVD from Reeltime Pictures.