Book Review: THE LIFE AND SCANDALOUS TIMES OF JOHN NATHAN-TURNER

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Review: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner / Author: Richard Marson / Publisher: Miwk Publishing / Release Date: May 31st

Before 1980 it’s very probable that most casual viewers of Doctor Who didn’t really give the role of producer a great deal of thought. To most of the audience he was just the boring bloke in a suit who sat in an office crunching numbers as the really creative people did the magic out on location or on the studio floor. The arrival of John Nathan-Turner in the producer’s chair in 1980 was nothing if not a revelation; Nathan-Turner was pure showbiz, camp as the proverbial row of tents, invariably decked out in some ghastly tasteless Hawaiian shirt and willing to stop at nothing to make Doctor Who one of the most popular programmes on TV again. The tragedy is that Nathan-Turner loved Doctor Who too much: his reluctance to let go as it floundered through the 1980s ended up trapping him as, ultimately, his BBC paymasters refused to let him go because no one else wanted to sully their hands with the by-now tainted brand the show had become. Nathan-Turner is often described as the man who killed Doctor Who; the awful truth is that Doctor Who killed John Nathan-Turner. By the time the BBC finally washed their hands of the series in 1989, Nathan-Turner, once a dazzling, thrusting, inventive pioneer with an inherent and instinctive knowledge of how to sell and market ‘product’, was an unwanted, embarrassing, washed-up old has-been loathed and resented by his employers. He rarely darkened the BBC’s doors again.

Richard Marson’s extraordinarily frank biography of John Nathan-Turner is a book about the most turbulent and controversial era in the history of Doctor Who and in its pages fans will find many long-standing rumours finally verified, myths debunked and an enormous number of home truths disclosed. This is a book about Doctor Who in as much as the show happens to cross paths with a not-quite-talented-enough middle-tier ambitious behind-the-scenes BBC TV employee who found himself taking on the role of the producer of one of the BBC’s most-popular and, in time, most troubling and troubled dramas. Marson, a writer for the official Doctor Who Magazine in its early days and a former Blue Peter editor, has left no stone unturned in his investigation into Nathan-Turner’s career and what he finds underneath those stones is often appallingly unpleasant and at times downright shocking.

Inevitably it’s Chapter Eight, 'Hanky Panky’ (named after Nathan-Turner’s rebuke to members of the Press who would routinely enquire about the Doctor’s romantic intentions towards his shapely female assistants: “There’ll be no hanky panky in the TARDIS”) which is likely to generate unfortunate headlines in a cold post-Savile TV climate. This is astonishingly raw stuff, detailing how Nathan-Turner (along with his much-reviled partner, one-time Doctor Who production manager Gary Downie) routinely approached and propositioned fanciable young men (generally teenagers just below the then-age of consent) and both used and abused his position as he used and abused his victims. But then maybe ‘abused’ isn’t the right word in this context; those who speak of their experiences in the book largely seemed aware of what they were doing and why they were doing it, although the author’s own recollection of hiding under a table in a darkened BBC office after-hours whilst being stalked by a predatory and determined Downie is the stuff of a cheap horror movie. Marson really has no choice but to ask the inevitable question and ask it he does: Was John Nathan-Turner a paedophile? The conclusion is that he probably wasn’t as there seems to be no evidence of him preying on dangerously young boys and the point is well-made that in today’s climate, where the age of consent is now much lower, his activities might not seem quite so repellent.

But there’s more to Marson’s book than salacious sexual gossip-mongering, even if it’s occasionally hard to engage in the trivia of the making of Doctor Who in the wake of Chapter Eight's hair-raising revelations. Marson has spoken to many of the show’s prime 1980s movers and shakers (including cast members Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Mark Strickson) and stories of the often-vindictive Nathan-Turner’s spats with his cast – Tom Baker, Anthony Ainley (The Master) and, most shockingly, Nicola Bryant (Peri) – are numerous. Nathan-Turner’s weaknesses are exposed and discussed. He had little feel for (or interest in) narrative and was more concerned with how the show looked ‘front of house,’ and yet his strengths are also self-evident. Often on the backfoot at the BBC, he fought like a dog to keep Doctor Who alive and on the screen when the Corporation itself was slowly turning its back on it. Amidst all the stories of the debauched parties and weekends spent soaked in alcohol, there are tales of the devotion he inspired amongst his true friends, his charming and generous nature and, perhaps most tragically of all, his increasingly hopeless attempts to move away from Doctor Who as he pitched witless series idea after idea to his bosses, only to be swatted aside and told to make more Doctor Who.

The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is car-crash stuff; you can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be reading it, that it’s opening doors that really should have been kept locked. But the book appeals to the shabby gossip in all of us, especially those who stuck with Doctor Who as its star lost its lustre in the 1980s, and the sleazier stories Marson recounts here really serve to confirm what most of us who were There At The Time had heard on the early-days Doctor Who fan grapevine. But Marson weaves a compelling tale which touches on all those 1980s controversies – Nathan-Turner’s rebranding of the show in 1980, its ‘cancellation’ in 1985, the sacking of Colin Baker, the casting of Bonnie Langford, those last few sad years when no one at the BBC cared. His immaculately researched prose, punctuated by contributions from a genuine and wide-ranging Who’s Who of Nathan-Turner’s colleagues and associates, makes the book a page-turner for all the right reasons; it’s the sort of book you really daren’t put down because you’re terrified at the prospect of what might come next even though you really can’t wait to find out.

Eventually becoming an absolute outcast at the BBC, Nathan-Turner’s last dream had been to make a fresh start abroad, leaving the world of Doctor Who behind by renovating an abandoned theatre in the middle of nowhere in Spain with Downie and staging plays for disenfranchised ex-pats. Sadly there’s no happy ending here. Years of alcohol abuse led to his premature death from organ failure and liver disease in May 2002, aged just 54. The Life and Scandalous Times will undoubtedly be uncomfortable reading for many in this joyous fiftieth anniversary year for Doctor Who (and might well be exposing skeletons the BBC would have preferred kept closeted for now), but its story of the life of one of the show’s most extravagant, passionate, disgraceful and eventually tragic personalities is fascinating, brilliantly told and, in the end, as essential to the completist as any of the more traditional celebratory volumes we can expect to see hitting the bookshelves this year. By any standards, this is a quite remarkable book.

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To read our exclusive interview with author Richard Marson click HERE, or pre-order your copy of the book through Amazon below...


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Comments  

 
+2 #1 Dominic May 2013-03-17 11:34
A nicely balanced review probably flying in the face of some more hysterical ones to follow that may suggest a threat to Doctor Who in the 50th anniversary year is posed. I suspect some vested interests may feel it could rain on their parade, but Doctor Who's brand is surely strong enough not to be concerned? This isn't really a Doctor Who book, but a proper biography covering some of the show's history and of course of most interest to those who watched the era covered. With the exception of Russell T Davies' contribution it is unlikely to appeal much to post 2004 new Doctor Who viewers unless they have themselves subsequently delved into the show's past history. Having read the book in draft while it was being written, I discovered it probably inadvertently turned out most to be about the human condition. Almost all life is here and when the contributors are speaking, in many cases you learn far more about them than you ever do about who/what they are talking about. Fascinating.
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