|Verity Lambert and some of her co-workers|
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|
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|
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.