BOOK REVIEW: DRAMA AND DELIGHT – THE LIFE OF VERITY LAMBERT / AUTHOR: RICHARD MARSON / PUBLSHER: MIWK PUBLISHING / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 8TH
Back in 2013, Richard Marson caused a bit of stir with the publication (also by Miwk) of his biography of John Nathan-Turner, the colourful final producer of what’s become known as the ‘classic’ Doctor Who series (he oversaw the show during its years of decline throughout the 1980s). Tales of Nathan-Turner’s predatory sexual activity with the show’s young fans (“doable barkers”) caused ripples not only throughout the Doctor Who community but also amongst the hacks of the British press who, in the middle of the Jimmy Savile scandal, sensed another stick with which they could beat the BBC about the head and shoulders. Marson’s latest book couldn’t be more different; in a pleasing symmetry it bookends the history of the original Doctor Who, exploring the life and times of the show’s very first producer, the legendary and unforgettable Verity Lambert. Marson’s book is laced through with scandal and controversy but it’s all very 1970s showbiz and unlikely to attract the attention of a Daily Mail ‘journalist’ in search of a salacious anti-BBC headline.
First and foremost, though, this is absolutely not a book about Doctor Who - yet it remains a book that will and should be required reading for long-time fans of the series or anyone with an interest in the origins of the show back in early 1963. But more than this, it’s a fascinating and virtually unputdownable chronicle of an extraordinary career played out in a fantastically rich and creative time in the British film and television industry. It’s the story of a trail-blazing woman in a traditionally man’s world, a tale told with fire and blazing passion, the story of a life lived richly and to the full and yet, at the end, despite all Verity Lambert’s achievements and accomplishments, there remains a lingering and melancholic sense that she could have accomplished so much more and never quite achieved her full potential, content as she was to remain at the coalface of production rather than sitting in meeting rooms chairing committees and hiding away from the creative cut-and-thrust which so inspired her.
Roedean-educated Lambert enjoyed what would have been called, at the time, a privileged upbringing in a moneyed family. Determined to forge a career in the entertainment industry she moved quickly from secretarial posts at Granada and ABC and as a personal assistant to TV producer David Susskind in New York and found her way to the BBC in 1963, where her famous “piss and vinegar” attitude attracted the attention of the vibrant Canadian Sydney Newman, drafted into the BBC to drag the Corporation into the bright and shiny new decade. Her appointment as the producer of the fledgling Saturday teatime family science-fiction adventure series Doctor Who caused ructions throughout the famously-staid BBC Television centre and tongues wagged not only at her outrageous and fashionable wardrobe (“What’s she wearing today?” was a familiar cry throughout the corridors of power) but also with salacious ‘casting couch’ rumours about her relationship with Newman. Although on her deathbed Verity insisted she hadn’t had an affair with Newman, many of her contemporaries - and Marson seems to have spoken to just about everybody still alive who ever knew or worked with her, their responses and recollections not always couched in the most glowing terms – suspect that at some point or another the two were, for a time at least, closer than history has ever previously legitimately recorded.
But Doctor Who is very much just the tip of an iceberg of Verity Lambert’s roll call of film and TV productions. Doctor Who is well-served in chapter three although there might not be much new for long-time fans (there are revelations that William Hartnell wasn’t a popular choice amongst some in the BBC hierarchy) but equally fascinating is the section devoted to Verity’s next major TV title, the much-maligned but fondly recalled fantasy Adam Adamant Lives! The saga of a 19th-century gentleman adventurer resurrected in swinging 1960s London never really worked to anybody’s satisfaction, but it’s a show recalled with warmth and affection by many of those involved. Verity moved on to work for London Weekend Television where she developed the successful Budgie series starring Adam Faith, and in 1974, she became Head of Drama at Thames Television. Here she helped mastermind a string of genuine British TV classics including The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies and Rumpole of the Bailey. By 1979, she was the Chief Executive of Euston Films whose gritty 1970s hits included Minder and Widows. Her dalliance with the film industry as Director of Entertainment for Thorn EMI was to be one of her more frustrating appointments as she struggled to get worthwhile projects off the ground in the slower-moving world of the film industry.
In later years Verity was successful enough – and sufficiently well-respected – to establish her own Cinema Verity production house and its successes includes the comedies May To December and So Haunt Me and a disastrous dalliance with the world of the soap opera in the BBC’s short-lived Spanish drama Eldorado where even force-of-nature Verity Lambert was unable to keep a lid on the ferocious ego of notorious control freak Julia Smith who had been appointed producer of the series. Plans to resurrect Doctor Who as an independent production with Peter Cook in the title role came to nothing and Verity’s last significant hit was quirky detective drama Jonathan Creek for which Verity took on producing duties as a freelancer following the show’s first successful BBC run.
But Richard Marson’s book isn’t just a dry trawl through a long career. When it has to be it’s controversial – no-one comes out of the legal debacle over the creation of 1970s musical drama Rock Follies with any credit, including Verity – and the book’s unflinching in its depiction of Verity as a passionate, driven, occasionally terrifying creative person given to ranting and raging at those who couldn’t meet her exacting standards and yet who engendered life-long friendships and ferocious loyalty from those fortunate enough to be on her wavelength. It’s a story of chain-smoking (she first beat cancer in 1973, but finally succumbed when it returned with a vengeance in 2007), an exotic and extravagant lifestyle, endless lavish dinner parties and an intense but ultimately failed marriage (to aspiring director Colin Bucksey who now works on American TV dramas such as Breaking Bad and Fargo). Drama and Delight is not, however, a fancy puff piece. It’s brutally honest about Verity’s strengths and weaknesses, her passions and peccadillos and her long-standing, never-resolved feuds with the likes of legendary TV producer Irene Shubik.
Drama and Delight is a book about Verity Lambert but it’s also a book about an age of British television (and creativity in general) now long gone, when careers were forged from good ideas and gut instincts and with a genuine desire to make intelligent, innovative television. In a modern TV landscape obsessed with reinvention and safe variations on familiar themes, her drive and determination and wilful stubborn refusal to give anything less than her very best, is achingly missed. As, indeed, is Verity Lambert herself. Drama and Delight, beautifully and sympathetically written in a no-nonsense style and clearly researched way above the call of duty, is very probably one of the best books about the glory years of British television ever written.