If you’re expecting some huge revelations about Verity Lambert’s tenure as producer of Doctor Who in Richard Marson’s new book Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert then you’ll probably be disappointed.
As the author emphatically declares, Verity Lambert was so much more than the first producer of the legendary science fiction series, a fitting accolade in and of itself. Marson therefore traces her early upbringing, schooling and employment as a secretary at ITV before her move to the BBC and her continuing success as a producer and executive with London Weekend and Thames Television, Euston Films, Thorn-EMI and finally her own production company Cinema Verity.
Just as the book essays her professional triumphs and disasters in the entertainment industry, producing a wonderful boardroom drama about the comings and goings of working at the BBC or ITV with plenty of anecdotes from friends and colleagues, so it also charts the choppy waters of her personal life and both the delight and disappointment she found in her friendships and relationships. You certainly get the sense that Verity enjoyed a challenge, dealing with rival producers or difficult writers or juggling a career with marriage, Great Danes and volatile friendships.
As the television industry changed, from the technical and production developments at BBC and ITV to the launch of Channel Four and to the impact of John Birt’s much criticised ‘producer choice’ at the BBC that ushered in the rise of the independent sector, Marson shows Verity taking on these upheavals with determination. The climate for making good drama radically alters between the 1960s and the 1990s but this woman always seemed to be in the thick of it, maintaining the quality of her productions until her demise.
Initially, the introduction of the book feels a little bit uncomfortable. While it sets the stage for the exploits of ‘Hurricane Verity’ (as she was known) it seems to end with a bit of a demolition job on Jessica Raine’s portrayal of Verity in Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time, the film that dramatised the troubled birth of Doctor Who in 2013.
Raine’s performance is demoted to one which has ‘no presence’ compared to the firebrand that, quite rightly, Marson then goes on to profile and offers as proof that the version of Verity Lambert we saw on screen didn’t quite live up to her inspiration. It’s a shame this contrast has to be brokered by various colleagues of Verity Lambert being rather unfair to Jessica Raine but pulling no punches is the thrust of Marson’s book and opinions from Verity’s fellow travellers are honest and direct. Much like the revered producer herself.
The book briefly traces her childhood and teenage years up to 1955 when at the age of sixteen she left Roedean, the girls school with which she was often associated in various press profiles. She took her six O Levels, her Jewish faith and her sense of being an outsider with her to pursue her education on a six-month course at the University of Paris (not the Sorbonne as often originally attributed), much to her father’s relief.
There’s a sense here that Verity embraced her own independence and did things very much her own way despite an unimpressive academic record. Her achievements in the entertainment industry and the energy behind them indicate she was always determined to make up for this deficiency. Her Doctor of Laws honorary degree from the University of Strathclyde in 1988 must have gone a long way to repairing that old wound.
After typing up menus for a hotel restaurant and several secretarial jobs, she worked in the Granada Television press office, acquiring the job after her father, who knew the chief executives Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, put a word in the appropriate ears.
Eventually sacked from Granada, she also ended an engagement, much to her father’s dismay, and instead transferred her considerable efforts into securing a job at ABC television. It was here that her potential was recognised and Marson describes her progress through the corridors of ABC, including a riveting recollection of the production of the Armchair Theatre nuclear holocaust play ‘Underground‘ (transmitted live 30 November 1958) directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff at their Didsbury studios in Manchester.
This was clearly Verity’s baptism by fire in television production and it is evocatively retold by the play’s director Kotcheff and one of the actors, Peter Bowles. Taking the directorial reigns on a live production, when actor Gareth Jones had just collapsed and died, showed her ongoing and remarkable ability to manage a crisis – something she would tenaciously apply again and again to rescuing scripts, editing and producing television and films. While she was in a relationship with Kotcheff, the book suggesting both Verity and Ted regretted it never achieved its true potential, she was also introduced to ABC’s wunderkind Head of Drama Sydney Newman.
She would eventually follow Newman to the BBC but prior to this she spent a formative year in New York working as a secretary with noted television producer David Susskind. There’s an indication that Susskind had an influence on Verity’s career development and she returned to England and ABC determined to be a television director. She had so impressed Newman with her ‘piss and vinegar’ attitude that, after he had been poached by the BBC, he rang her up and asked her to produce Doctor Who (after failing to persuade Don Taylor, Shaun Sutton or Richard Bates to take on the task).
Marson’s book spends some time unpicking the professional relationship between Verity and Sydney Newman against a background of gossip about whether they actually had a physical relationship. Director Herbert Wise claims they did and the book emphasises that, in the context of the times, it was common place for women to do so in order to move up the career ladder. As to whether this ‘casting couch’ principle was the origin of her eventual promotion by Newman to producer at the BBC remains unclear and even on her death bed, Verity categorically refuted the suggestion.
Doctor Who‘s creation and production certainly ruffled feathers at the BBC when its female producer entered a battle of wills with designer Peter Brachacki over the design of the TARDIS set and with original director Rex Tucker about casting the significant role of the Doctor. Herbert Wise, not one to mince words it seems, also believed her choice of William Hartnell for the role was ‘fucking awful’ even though she transformed him into an early television star. She also had something of a difficult relationship with director Richard Martin. His opinion of Terry Nation’s scripting efforts is as equally disparaging as Wise’s is of Hartnell.
The familiar tales of Newman making her and director Waris Hussein (a fellow outsider), remount the pilot, his rejection of the Daleks as bug-eyed monsters, and the troubles with the outmoded production environment of Lime Grove studios have passed into legend. Marson captures the cut and thrust of these pioneering days of television and its inherent prejudice and snobbery. Verity’s determination to make Doctor Who work enshrined her attitudes about shattering the glass ceiling that prevented many minorities and women from progressing in the business.
After Doctor Who, this attitude saw her through something of a roller coaster ride through the mixed fortunes of working at the BBC and ITV and film production at Thorn-EMI. Her hopes of getting a Sexton Blake series off the ground were stymied by Newman’s request she take the reigns on a new soap to replace Compact (BBC, 1962-65). The short lived 199 Park Lane (BBC 1965) – so terrible she demanded her name be removed from the credits – eventually led to her producing the first eight episodes of Colin Morris and Anthony Coburns’s twice-weekly drama serial The Newcomers (BBC, 1965-69) which reunited her with director Waris Hussein.
There is a fascinating account of the shambolic production of Adam Adamant Lives! (BBC, 1966-67) and Verity’s crisis of confidence about its scripts and direction. She was also very unhappy about the lack of promotion and inconsistent scheduling of the second series. Marson deftly interweaves the problems with Adam Adamant Lives! with Verity’s relationship with gay director David Sullivan Proudfoot. One of many close friendships she formed with gay men during her career, there was talk of an engagement with Proudfoot. However, this never transpired and it seems he sought some security with her at a time when being openly gay was difficult.
She continued to work at the BBC on the 1968 revival of the anthology series Detective, which introduced her to a different calibre of writers, including Hugh Whitmore, and she formed a very strong friendship and working relationship with a young (and gay) script-editor Andrew Brown.
He first worked with her on W. Somerset Maugham (BBC, 1968-70), a series of the writer’s plays that consolidated Verity’s determination to work with the best writers and directors, with adaptations by Simon Raven, John Bowen, Simon Gray and Julian Mitchell and directed by Moira Armstrong, James Cellan Jones, Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Christopher Morahan. Despite the series winning BAFTA awards, the BBC did not renew her contract in 1970 and London Weekend Television eventually gained the benefit of her hard working, no nonsense attitude and production experience.
She made her mark with the fondly remembered Budgie (LWT, 1971-72), created by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall and starring Adam Faith and Ian Cuthbertson. Again she was working with good writers and directors and hired Mike Newell, Jim Goddard and Lindsay-Hogg to helm the series about a charming Cockney ex-con’s involvement in rash, money-making schemes. The chapter on Budgie is very insightful about the casting and creation of the series. It also introduces another writer who would regularly work with her, Douglas Livingstone. Here, Livingstone indicates Verity’s acumen for good taste: ‘It was in every aspect of her life. Food, wine, furniture and particularly scripts. She could taste what was wrong with a script and, in my case, she was never mistaken.’
Production on Budgie ushered in a new man in her life, film maker Colin Bucksey who had ambitions of his own in the business and was ten years younger than the 35-year-old Verity. A holiday in Portugal brought them together and, despite her friends’ disapproval and prejudice, their relationship endured and after marrying Verity, Bucksey carved out a very successful career as a director on his own terms.
She then made a brief return to the BBC to make Shoulder to Shoulder (BBC, 1974) and in 1975 worked at Thames on The Naked Civil Servant, both landmark dramas for very different reasons. Six 75-minute plays, Shoulder to Shoulder offered her an opportunity to channel many of her personal ambitions and feelings as a creative woman into an inspiring drama about suffrage which chimed with the rise of feminism in the early 1970s.
A fascinating account is provided of the production, writing and casting of the series and shows Verity trying to please her partners in the production, Georgia Brown and Midge Mackenzie, despite the latter being determined that men should not be involved in the series at all according to Waris Hussein, and fulfilling the practicalities of production and scripting. Marson never lets us lose sight of her personal triumphs and disasters and tragically 1974 is also marked by her first encounter with the cancer that would ultimately cut short her life five days before her 72nd birthday in 2007.
Her career at Thames and later with its subsidiary Euston Films provides an amazing roll-call of some of the best British television ever made. The aforementioned The Naked Civil Servant, Philip Mackie’s highly regarded dramatisation of the life of Quentin Crisp, ‘one of the stately homos of England’, was a project she championed after it was turned down by the BBC. She empathised with Crisp’s outsider status and battle for recognition and equality.
She also confidently supported Trevor Griffiths when he pitched political drama Bill Brand (Thames, 1976) and worked again with Andrew Brown on the development of Howard Schuman’s Rock Follies (Thames, 1976-77), a wonderfully experimental, award-winning musical drama that stretched the stylistic possibilities of studio production, and on the award-winning royal drama Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames, 1978).
The success of Rock Follies would, however, be tinged with bitterness when the originators of the idea for the series successfully sued her and Thames. Similarly, after ‘poaching’ Rumpole of the Bailey (Thames, 1978-92) from its producer Irene Shubik, she was caught up in the unfortunate recriminations when the BAFTA jury of 1991 chaired by Shubik awarded Best Drama Serial to Prime Suspect rather than, as the industry had expected, Verity’s production of Alan Bleasdale’s G.B.H. These are great stories about the internecine workings of show business and they elevate this book from being merely recollections about Verity’s work on Doctor Who and offer a personal view of the changing fortunes of British television and those working in the industry.
Working with Johnny Goodman, Linda Agran and Lynda la Plante at Euston was clearly fruitful for Verity. Minder (1979-94), Quatermass (1979), Danger UXB (1979), Fox (1980), Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983) and Widows (1983) all provide testimony she was a shrewd judge of quality and talent. A groundbreaking and challenging project was 1981’s The Flame Trees of Thika, a seven-episode adaptation of writer Elspeth Huxley’s book about her childhood in Kenya. There were the ones that got away too. She had within her sights the original scripts The Paddy Factor and A Thoroughly Filthy Fellow but uncharacteristically she passed on these and under other producers they were transformed into the films The Long Good Friday (1980) and Scandal (1989).
As a counter to this extremely fruitful career then perhaps the period at Thorn-EMI as a film executive rather than a television producer was evidently less successful. She clearly struggled to adapt to a very different development and production ethos and only Dreamchild (1985) and Clockwise (1986) emerged as critical successes from the handful of films she produced, including 1985’s ill-feted Morons From Outer Space. She brokered a deal with Cannon, the new owners of Thorn-EMI, and as an independent producer in 1988 put all her energies into producing A Cry In The Dark, an adaptation of John Bryson’s book about the infamous Michael and Lindy Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case in Australia.
The focus on A Cry in the Dark also emphasises how passionately she felt about Australia, the love of the country and the friendships she had made there. However, this also coincided with the breakdown of her marriage to Colin Bucksey which ended in divorce in 1984 and the damaging court case over the ownership of the idea for Rock Follies. But if there is one thing patently clear from the book, Verity always reappraised her life and career and simply got back into the fray. Out of the disappointments of working at Thorn-EMI, she had set up her own independent company Cinema Verity and would provide the BBC with sitcoms May to December (1989-94) and So Haunt Me (1992-94) and Channel Four with 1991’s critically acclaimed Alan Bleasdale drama G.B.H.
Her greatest gamble and one that also damaged her reputation was Cinema Verity’s co-production with the BBC of soap Eldorado (1992-3). Marson’s sympathetic appreciation of the disastrous production of the soap about ex-pats living in Spain provides further incentive to read this book.
From the clashes with formidable BBC producer Julia Smith, the debacles over casting inexperienced actors, the problems with the sets built in Coín, to the impossible transmission deadlines and script-editor Tony Holland’s disappearing acts, Eldorado was clearly a project where Verity, also dealing with the harrowing and impending death of her friend Andrew Brown, took her hands off the steering wheel. Director Herbert Wise, one never to disappoint with his brutal honesty, offers: ‘The only real failure that she had. And my God, was that a failure…’
And yet, she emerged from the aftermath and carried on. In her last decade, she produced She’s Out! (ITV, 1995), a sequel to Widows, Douglas Livingstone’s adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘The Cazalet Chronicles‘ as The Cazalets (BBC, 2001) and, from its second series onwards, David Renwick’s Jonathan Creek (BBC, 1997-) and his comedy-drama Love Soup (BBC, 2005-8). It was during the production of Love Soup that it became clear she was gravely ill after the cancer she defeated in the 1970s had returned in 2005. The book concludes with a deeply touching and emotional recollection from writer David Renwick, featuring pages from his diaries that chronicle her last days and her funeral in December 2007.
Richard Marson is to be commended for fashioning a gripping memoir of this woman’s life and career, mapping the highs and lows with candid detail and providing us with a picture of a private but joyful individual who never suffered fools gladly but could also recognise and embrace similar strengths of character in those she would come to regard as friends.
Beyond this the book provides an individual and tangible history of television and Verity’s role in shaping it, from its haphazard, adrenaline fueled ‘live’ days in Manchester studios to multi-million pound filmed productions that demonstrated the real scope, relevance and power of British television drama.
Drama & Delight: The Life of Verity Lambertby Richard Marson
Selection of black and white and colour plates
ISBN: 978-1-908630-33-X (Hardback edition)
ISBN: 978-1-908630-33-9 (Softback edition)