Review: Robert Holmes – A Life in Words / Author: Richard Molesworth / Publisher: Telos Publishing / Release Date: Out Now
It’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that two Doctor Who fans in a room together will vary rarely share the same opinion on their favourite TV show. But the exception which proves this rule is that both of them – indeed, all of them – are likely to agree that the extraordinary Robert Holmes was surely the best scriptwriter to ever work on the classic (i.e., 1963-1989) incarnation of the series - and some might even argue he could show a clean pair of heels to most of those who contribute to the glitzy 21st century reboot.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, in what might be said to be the glory days of British television, TV scriptwriters would turn out hours and hours of competent, if mundane, scripts for the tide of routine medical, police and detective dramas which made up so much of the early TV schedules (some things don‘t change). Robert Holmes, an ex-policeman who earned his spurs writing scripts for 1960s soap dramas like Emergency Ward 10 and long forgotten series like Knight Errant Ltd, Ghost Squad and Harpers West One, finally found his way into Doctor Who in the late 1960s when he contributed two unremarkable scripts for second Doctor Patrick Troughton’s final season. 1970s Who script editor Terrance Dicks, who’d baby-walked Holmes through his first two stories, commissioned the writer to pen ‘Spearhead From Space’, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s memorable first serial. Holmes quickly established a remarkable affinity for Doctor Who; his scripts were clever, witty, deliciously written and effortlessly imaginative. During the 1970s he was responsible for creating the Autons and the Sontarans, he introduced Sarah Jane Smith to the series and his 1973 script ‘The Time Warrior’ finally gave the Doctor’s home planet a name. In 1975 he became the show’s script editor just as Tom Baker arrived as the Fourth Doctor and, along with firebrand producer Phillip Hinchliffe, created a new template for Doctor Who which took the series, for three seasons, to new heights of popularity and creative acclaim. Holmes controversially reimagined the Time Lords in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and crafted ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’, one of the classic series’ very best serials. But Holmes did so much more for Doctor Who than just write great scripts; he was an immaculate, passionate script editor, often reworking and rewriting weak scripts whilst never compromising his determination to make the series grittier, darker and more adult. Leaving Doctor Who in 1977, Robert Holmes wrote the well remembered BBC fantasy serial The Nightmare Man (based on David Wiltshire’s Child of Vodvanoi novel) and worked on friend and colleague Robert Banks Stewart’s series Shoestring and Bergerac. Who-ed out in the 1970s, he returned to the series not a moment too soon when he wrote Peter Davison’s dazzling finale ‘The Caves of Androzani’ in 1984 and he was still working on scripts for the by-now troubled show at the time of his premature death in 1986.
Richard Molesworth’s A Life in Words is a stunningly researched chronicle of the working life of a tragically underrated writer who considered himself as just a hack. But what it isn’t – and to be fair, what it doesn’t purport to be – is an autobiography. Details of Holmes’ life are thin on the ground; the book will tell you of his pre-writing career, the facts that he married and had kids and grandchildren and that he moved house occasionally. But of the man himself there’s precious little beyond the popular, occasionally recorded perception of him as this gaunt, sallow, pipe-smoking figure possessed of a prodigious imagination, a formidable talent and a marked failure to appreciate just how damned good a TV writer he was. Molesworth’s text really is a ‘life in words’ – the words of Holmes himself culled from numerous fan magazine interviews and contemporary commentary and those of friends and colleagues such as Dicks, Banks Stewart, Chris (Blake’s 7) Boucher and Eric Saward, the 1980s script editor who brought Holmes back into the Doctor Who fold. Not just a book about Doctor Who (there may be some glazing-over of eyes at the detailed reprinted storylines of old Doctor Finley and Ward 10 episodes), A Life in Words is a fascinating story and an extraordinary insight into a long-gone world of journeyman TV scriptwriting. Sadly there’s no happy ending – plagued by ill-health in later life, Holmes died at the age of 60 from a sudden liver illness and his story is punctuated by tales of failed series pitches and aborted projects. But the book is a gloriously readable testament to the work and talent of a TV writer who, if there was any justice, would be as lauded and respected beyond the occasionally insular world of Doctor Who in the same way that modern-day showrunners like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are. It’s a terrific book which sits right alongside the very best Who-related volumes issued during the fiftieth anniversary year.