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Nov 23, 2007

Electrode dreamscapes

Last year, back when the Outpost Gallifrey website still boasted a features section, I began writing an article in praise of the career of Verity Lambert. For one reason or another I never finished the piece, but when I heard today’s sad news, I remembered it and decided to take a look.

It’s grossly inadequate as any kind of fitting tribute to the woman, even on a weblog, but I thought for what it was worth I’d drag it out and run it up the flagpole. Because even if your words of praise are nowhere near eloquent enough, there are never too many words that can be said in praise of this woman.

So, back to the summer of 2006

A hard-hitting political drama leavened with a rich vein of dark humour, and a 1960s adventure series.

Thanks to the modern miracle that is the DVD boxed set, I was recently able to enjoy for the first time two fine television programmes I had read a lot about but never seen – the 1991 Channel 4 serial G.B.H., and 1960s BBC One adventure hokum Adam Adamant Lives!. I watched both of these in successive weeks, and apart from the fact that they both now sit happily on my DVD shelf, you’d have to say that I could not have chosen a more contrasting fortnight’s viewing.

One programme is a hard-hitting political drama leavened with a rich vein of dark humour, exploring the world of socialism, the extreme left, the Labour movement and the values and morals of Britain at the dawn of the 1990s. The other is a 1960s adventure series, a sequence of stand-alone episodes telling the tale of the eponymous Adam Adamant, a gentleman adventurer frozen in a block of ice by his nemesis The Face in 1902, awaking sixty-four years later to confront the new evils and new morality of London at the height of the swinging sixties.

A quarter of a century in time, a chasm of ethos and vastly different television landscapes separate these two series.

A quarter of a century in time, a chasm of ethos and vastly different television landscapes separate these two series. And yet for all of this, there is one thread that runs through, one constant that for more than forty years now has almost always meant a guarantee of quality wherever you see it on the credits of a British television programme. Back in the 1960s on Adam Adamant, it’s the penultimate name you see on the end credits – by the time of G.B.H. in 1991, it’s right up there written large across the screen immediately after the names of the two stars at the start of each episode.

That name, of course, is Verity Lambert.

If you’re reading this, then you are almost certainly a Doctor Who fan, and probably well aware of the name of Verity Lambert and just how much the programme owes to her. Often, however, being associated with Doctor Who can be both a blessing and a curse. It is a wonderful and special thing because it means those who might perhaps be forgotten, despite long and varied careers, are never done so – directors, writers, producers, script editors, fight arrangers and even floor managers who might be lost from the pages of television history are chronicled in the articles of Doctor Who Magazine or the chapters of any one of a dozen reference books. To have worked on the production of Doctor Who is to be remembered – perhaps only in a small way, but still a rather special one, I think.

People are often remembered by us solely for their work on Doctor Who, with their other achievements and programmes not celebrated as much as they ought to be.

The flipside of this is that these people are often remembered by us solely for their work on Doctor Who, with their other achievements and programmes not so much being deliberately ignored, but perhaps not gone into and celebrated as much as they ought to. Lambert suffers less from this than others – she’s had such a stellar career it’d be hard for even the most insular of Doctor Who fans not to have noticed it – but we still tend to look at her through the microscope of Doctor Who history.

Which should not be ignored – oh no. Let’s get that straight right away, what she achieved in 1963 was something very magical and special. Russell T Davies wrote in Doctor Who Magazine around the time of the 2005 show’s launch that he was disappointed when Lambert could not attend the premier in Cardiff, because she ought to have been carried shoulder high through the crowd. And so she should. For Lambert worked to produce Doctor Who when it did not have the backing of decades of poplar consciousness behind it, an expectant audience and a nation raised on its icons.

Lambert had nothing. No fond audience memories, no race memory of police boxes and Daleks. She did it all from scratch, and against the background of a fraught development process and a sometimes openly hostile environment inside the BBC that very nearly saw Doctor Who killed at birth. She is the one constant – there are many men who had a hand in creating all sorts of bits and pieces of the fiction of the show; Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson, David Whitaker, Anthony Coburn… all great and good men, none would doubt that. They all helped create the magic.

Lambert had nothing. No fond audience memories, no race memory of police boxes and Daleks. She did it all from scratch.

But Lambert was the one woman, the one producer, the one constant – it was she who had to take all of these incredible, some might say foolhardy, elements and forge a real series out of them, take it from the page and see that it was actually made and broadcast. On a budget a similar ITV or American series might have laughed at, she created a series that could really go anywhere and do anything – lost in time and space, every Saturday night it took risks and tried things no BBC production on that level ought to have been able to do. Series one of Doctor Who is some of the bravest, daftest, most brilliant television you will ever see. That’s why this series could come back with such success in 2005. That’s why it lasted so long originally. That’s why it’s an icon. Because it was great from the beginning.

Too often, however, when we look at the careers of Doctor Who alumni we only find ourselves finding out much about their careers outside of the series when they die. Then Doctor Who Magazine prints an obituary or a tribute and we discover all of the other programmes they worked on, and it always seems something of a shame that nobody really celebrated these achievements when they were alive.

Too often, when we look at the careers of Doctor Who alumni we only find ourselves finding out much about their careers outside of the series when they die.

With Lambert, Doctor Who really happened at the beginning of her career, so she has had forty-plus years afterwards to cram television production into, a span that few – if any – of the behind-the-scenes personnel who worked on the original series could match. And even before Doctor Who it was quite a career – she had worked as David Susskind’s personal assistant in New York, and been a production assistant on Armchair Theatre at ABC. She was, indeed, present for one of that series’ legendary moments, when actor Gareth Jones died off-stage in between scenes during a live broadcast.

But what came next, after Doctor Who, for the BBC’s youngest and only female drama producer? It’s a television career that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. Not one to rest on her laurels nor one to shirk a difficult assignment, having gotten such a troublesome series off the ground and launched it into an entirely unexpected level of popularity, she next briefly took on the launching of a new BBC soap opera, The Newcomers. This was to be only a brief stop, however, as after overseeing the initial eight weeks of that programme she was picked by Sydney Newman to once again produce a show he had come up with the initial concept of, and once again it was one that would earn a degree of cult fandom, albeit nowhere near Doctor Who’s level. This show was Adam Adamant Lives!

It’s a television career that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.

Lambert herself has confessed to never really being entirely satisfied with Adam Adamant, feeling that it never quite gelled as the ingredients had promised that it might.

…and that’s where it stops. I never got around to finishing the piece. I probably assumed I’d get back to it one day, but it feels as if the moment has rather passed now. All too sadly, in a very permanent way.

Had I gone on, it would have been in danger of desensitising its readers to Lambert’s genius, because the list of iconic and critically acclaimed shows she worked upon is longer than that of probably any other producer – Budgie, Rock Follies, The Naked Civil Servant, Minder, Quatermass, Widows, Sleepers, Jonathan Creek, Love Soup… You could fill a book with platitudes to her career.

Somebody certainly should.

Comments

Even if you feel this is an incomplete and uncompletable tribute to Verity Lambert, it remains thoughtful and beautiful. If they get the internet in any afterlife, I hope someone shares this with her because she deserves to know how much she was appreciated.

No, this feels like a very fitting tribute and an interesting introduction to Verity Lambert's other work for all us newcomers to the fandom and British television. The more articles like this they are, the more people can get in touch with her legacy in years to come.

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