Friday, January 12, 2018

Verity Lambert

Verity Lambert and some of her co-workers
There was a time in my life when it was very important to get home by 4:20 in the afternoon.  Well, "home" may have been stretching it, as it wasn't a house in the traditional sense, but a dormitory.  However, in those days in Britain it was the place that I regarded as my own, as simple as it was.  In the common room was a television set, a colour TV set, before which we would gather, in tweeds and school blazers and green corduroy shoes and sometimes muddy footer gear, to watch the newest installment of Doctor Who.

We didn't mind that the episodes seemed to enjoy a budget of about one pound, twenty; or that the futuristic sets were clearly made from cardboard, as would be obvious whenever an actor happened to brush against something.   We didn't even mind when the electrical tape holding together an evil robot was visible.  Doctor Who was campy, absurd fun and anyone who has ever frustrated a dormitory house master by capering about after lights out projecting up and down the hallway a reasonable approximation of an alien robot's voice knows how much it is intertwined with British pop culture.

However, as with many new ideas, the BBC almost didn't permit Doctor Who on the air; even when it was eventually aired there were episodes, characters, and villains who almost were not cleared by the suits in the front office.  In at least one incident, such a refusal would have been a disaster for the series; although it probably would have permitted my dorm master a good night's sleep.

For those unfamiliar, the protagonist of Doctor Who is a character known simply as "The Doctor".  The fact that he has no recognized forename or surname explains the series' title.  The Doctor is a "time lord" who possesses a machine that travels through time and space, thus enabling a rather rich variety of plot possibilities.  He is often accompanied by a human companion, usually a young woman who, over the series 50+ years on the air, has been everything from a damsel in distress to a feisty London street kid to a warrior princess of an extraterrestrial culture.

However, there is one woman whose prominence is above them all, and not just because she was real.  It's because, without her, there would have been no Doctor Who.

Lambert with less exotic co-workers
There were other women who were producers for the BBC in the early 1960's, but Verity Lambert, born in London in 1935 and partially educated at the Sorbonne, was the only one who had no experience in theater or radio.  In fact, she began her television career as a secretary for Associated British Corporation Television.  Such was the free-wheeling world of early British television that everyone, including the secretary, had some say in the creation of a product.  As Lambert served the ABC's head of the drama department, it was he who recognized Lambert's inmate talent for organization and creativity, something that would become more obvious when he left the ABC for the BBC and brought her along with him.

At the time, the BBC was interested in creating a children's program that would both entertain and teach science.  They had developed a premise, designed for a thirteen week run, about an older, grandfather-type who traveled through time revealing all sorts of interesting details about history, physics, and astronomy.  I'm sure it looked good on paper, but a number of well-established producers turned down the offer to run the show.  It was then offered to the former secretary, who took it on with enthusiasm.

Lambert pushed for something more entertaining, and certainly designed to encourage the imagination of the young viewers.  As she was still in her 20's, and as London in 1963 was beginning to become the world's center of hip music, fashion, and literature, Lambert brought a new vision to the project.  Doctor Who would be like nothing anyone had yet seen on the BBC.

To be fair, Lambert was building on a considerable foundation, as creative science fiction had been part of BBC-TV's repertoire since its earlier days.  [It might interest the reader to investigate the writings of Nigel Kneale, who also created an older scientist-type for his stories of space and wonder, albeit with a darker vision.  In fact, later in her career, Lambert would produce for television some of Kneale's scripts.]

Beyond the educational scripts, though, Lambert had little on which to chart a new course for The Doctor, save for a script by the prolific Terry Nation [who would spend the 1960's and 70's penning episodes of The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, The Avengers, The Persuaders, The Protectors, and just about any other show whose title began with an article].  In Nation's script, The Doctor would face mechanical villains from outer space known as...The Daleks.

Lambert with a Dalek
Lambert had been told by the BBC's executives that there would be no "bug-eyed monsters" on Doctor Who [which should make any of the three generations of viewers laugh, as the show became famous for its monsters], but without any other script to film, and having a hunch that The Daleks would prove popular, Lambert pushed for it, promising to resign if it were to be a disaster.  It wasn't.

The Daleks would become The Doctor's major enemy, from 1963 until...well, they're still around and vexing the latest, and twelfth, actor to play him.  Much of what made them popular was that the BBC's sound studios had created a memorable, and rather creepy, voice for The Daleks.

Lambert knew she had a hit on her hands when a few days after The Daleks were introduced, on her double-decker bus on the way to work, school children were imitating them, dashing about from behind the seats to intone "Exterminate!" to the amused, or non-plussed, adults who were sharing the ride.  An idea, a hunch, a stray script, and some youthful gumption on the part of a 28-year-old producer had just created a phenomenon that lasts to this day.  I should note how venerable the series is, given that I became a fan when I was fifteen and that was nearly a decade after Doctor Who's creation, when the series was already on its third actor in the lead role.

Witness the reaction of a more recent Doctor [#9] upon rediscovering his old adversary:

Lambert would continue to produce programs and features, often succeeding, sometimes failing, but always bringing something interesting to the air.  She would leave Doctor Who in its third year and move on to other projects for the BBC and later through her own, independent production company.  Readers who have seen episodes of Masterpiece Theatre's The Flame Trees of Thika, Reilly, Ace of Spies, Jonathan Creek, or the controversial Rock Follies have seen her subsequent work.  [She also produced the film A Cry in the Dark, wherein Harvey Weinstein's long-time friend, Meryl Streep, issues her most famous line of dialogue, "A dingo ate my baby!"]

Very much one of the lads, and known to have a drink and pack of cigarettes or two a day, Lambert never had time for children.  Her true progeny would prove to be the countless television shows and films that she produced and the characters of such imaginary charge that they still exist in the play of young people and the memories of those older.

Verity Lambert would succumb to lung cancer in her 71st year, still working and bringing to life new situations, characters, and possibilities in fiction.  Shortly before her death, she would be appointed by Queen Elizabeth II an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to film and television production.  A greater honor, perhaps, is the plaque presented by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society at the site of the BBC studio where The Doctor, The Daleks, and all of the familiar companions, human and alien, made their start.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

An Obituary of Note

Lawrence Stager, the Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, emeritus, at Harvard University, died on December 29, 2017, at the age of 74.  

Unsung outside of archaeology, he studied, in particular, the ancient city of Ashkelon.  His excavation revealed much of what we now know of the Old Testament world.

Monday, January 8, 2018


Currently on a mission trip in a part of the world where the Internet is still a fond memory, rather than a casual reality.  So, intermittent postings will be the standard for the next fortnight.

However, there is a biography this week that will be posted on Friday.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Dear Media

"Alot" is not a word that exists in the English language.  I believe you mean "a lot".

It's not a "new record", it's simply a "record".  As in "We have record temperatures today".

One cannot "center around" something.  That doesn't make sense.  It's "center on".

Friday, January 5, 2018

John Wilson Murray

“I will follow criminals to any place and run them down.”

My uncle was a trooper for the Ohio State Highway Patrol.  He covered, with only two or three others, the 700+ square miles of Ohio's largest county, seemingly always on duty and always driving that beast of a Ford Fairlane or Chevy Impala.  In the trunk was the standard array of safety equipment, from highway flares to a first aid kit to a three day food and water pack in case he was lodged in a snow drift [that would happen enough that, when I first received my driver's license, we were required by law to have emergency food and water in our cars in the winter].  There was also a Remington pump-action shotgun and a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun in there.  My cousins and I liked to look in that massive trunk and imagine Uncle Roger's adventures.

Unk's ride.
When I was older and driving to visit my parents back in Ohio, I would spend the better part of the journey covering that big county that was my now-retired uncle's former beat.  The idea that a few troopers kept law and order in those small towns sprinkled throughout the snow, most of which had no police department or even a town sheriff with a nervous, incompetent deputy, amazed me even more than it did in childhood.  What a remarkable charge that was, and what remarkable men they were who kept some semblance of peace among the boondockers, hillbillies, moonshiners, common and career criminals, and inebriates who could make life unpredictable in the towns surrounding the "big city" of Ashtabula.  [Before any scolding social justice warriors lose their water, my uncle and I are hillbillies, too, thus we can use the "H-Word".]

Now imagine what it was like to serve as the sole agent of the law in a 400,000+ square mile Canadian province with no car, machine gun, radio, or even highway flares.  That was the charge of John Wilson Murray, who became a remarkable and celebrated detective at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It should come as no surprise that Murray was a Scotsman, not just because of his surname, but because of the rather offhand manner in which he approached a daunting responsibility.  Born in Edinburgh in 1840, Murray came to the United States with his family while still a child and, when of age, joined the U.S. Navy as a common sailor.  As most of his experience was realized during the Civil War, he performed his duty in the Great Lakes as part of the flotilla guarding a prisoner-of-war cantonment on an island in Lake Erie.  After the war's end, he joined the Erie, Pennsylvania police department, eventually serving as a detective.

With the planned completion of the Canadian intra-continental railroad, there was a general call for all sorts of workers, not just engineers, conductors, and boiler-men, but also personnel for the railway's own security force.  As it was backed by an eager government's budget, the salary was higher than that of a small city's police force [$1500 a year], so Murray became a railroad detective.  His service was so exemplary that he was hired to a rather particular job created in 1875, that of Detective for the Government of Ontario.  He was the only detective from Toronto to Pickle Lake, from Wood Creek to the border of Manitoba, responsible for investigating crimes committed among the 2,000,000 residents, from the cosmopolitan to the tribal.

From the official Ontario government history, we learn the reasons for the creation of this position:
Murray’s appointment was a response to weaknesses in the existing system of policing and prosecution. The major urban centres had introduced police forces from the 1830s, and the 1858 amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act had required towns of more than 15,000 people to establish their own constabularies. In rural areas law enforcement was the responsibility of local justices of the peace and county constables, who were remunerated by a system of fees. In all areas prosecution was the responsibility of county crown attorneys, who did no investigative work but prosecuted on the basis of whatever information the police could provide. Detectives were not a major feature of the system. Prior to Murray’s appointment the provincial government had employed private detectives on an ad hoc basis, and specialized “detectives” had been used for political purposes, for example in the observation and suppression of Fenian activity. They were also used by the new dominion government for the guarding of public buildings and the investigation of counterfeiting operations. Some municipal forces and county constabularies employed them from the 1860s, but they were not systematically used.
By the 1870s three principal weaknesses had been perceived in this system, especially in rural areas. First, in the words of Hugh McKinnon, chief of the Belleville police, the constable, who was “usually a poor man,” could afford only to “take a look about the immediate neighbourhood”; he went no further because the fees were “totally inadequate to reimburse him for either his time or necessary expenses.” Secondly, localism resulted in patronage, corruption, and jurisdictional disputes, which hampered the investigation of crimes involving prominent figures and of many major crimes. Thirdly, there was an increasing perception that rural constables were simply not capable of investigating anything but minor offences. [1]
Murray proved peripatetic in the pursuit of justice, well-known not only on the streets of Toronto but in many of the remote outposts in the province.  A stern and abiding presence, he also showed an aptitude for self-promotion that ensured that his story and photo were often in the newspaper.  I'm sure that was necessary for the job, too, as it was as much political as investigatory.

Canada's largest city, circa 1890
In 1890, Murray was involved in solving the most notorious murder in the province, the infamous Birchall Case [2], made more prominent due to the advent of Ontario's nascent tabloid newspaper industry.  As all reporting needs a hook to draw in readers [and advertisers], and the best hook is an inspiring hero, Murray's fame was solidified throughout all of Canada.  So much so that, from that time forward, he was often referred to in the press as "The Great Detective".

Murray would, with the aid of some journalist ghost writers, author an autobiography entitled [what else?] The Memoirs of the Great Detective.  Since it was meant to be a general part of tabloid ballyhoo, it cannot be trusted as an accurate source, but it sold papers and enabled Murray to enjoy job security.  Upon his death at the age of 66 in 1906, he was still serving as Ontario's detective, albeit sharing the responsibility with a few others as the provincial population had increased.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company produced a successful TV show in the early 1980's, "The Great Detective", about Murray's exploits, most of them based on factual cases.  The even more popular CBC show, "Murdoch Mysteries" [also available on streaming services and syndicated on U.S. television] is an extrapolation of Murray's work.  As designed for modern tastes, Detective Murdoch uses science and psychology to solve his turn-of-the-century crimes; it should be noted that Murray more often used the more physical and coercive tools of his era to earn confessions.

Nowadays, detection is the responsibility of the Ontario Provincial Police, or OPP, who can boast of over 6200 officers addressing issues of crime and disorderliness.  In their museum, one may read of the prominence of John Wilson Murray's contribution not just to the development of Canadian policing, but in maintaining a sense of lawfulness for which Canadians are still well-known.

So much so that each year an honor guard of the OPP meet at Murray's grave to throw him a salute, replace the OPP, traditional and contemporary Canadian flags that adorn it, and honor his memory in a manner appropriate to such a pre-eminent lawman.