Just finished reading The Life and Scandalous Times of JN-T, a controversial biography of John Nathan-Turner, the late Doctor Who producer who oversaw its various rises and falls during the 1980s. A few thoughts.
On the whole, it’s very good. Particularly in terms of capturing JN-T’s personality, his world and his sense of humour. Ironically it’s of most interest to Doctor Who fans when covering JN-T’s early career, as that’s new information whereas the Doctor Who section of his career has been thoroughly explored in interviews, articles and DVD documentaries, and there are few stories to be found which won’t be familiar to fans. In fact, the coverage of the awfulness of fandom during the mid-80s brought back a lot of bad memories I’d suppressed.
The author seems to have taken ‘even-handedness’ as a mission statement and the book tries to give all points of few, even to a fault. On more than one occasion does the narrative grind to a halt as a dozen or more of JN-T’s acquaintances get to have their say on some point of contention; on the one hand, I applaud the thoroughness and appreciate the author’s desire not to leave anything out, but on the other hand I think some tighter editorial discretion would have helped, to realise that once a point’s been effectively made it’s time to move on. It is a biographer’s job to sift the evidence and to boil it down; at various points in this book it seemed the reader is expected to decide whether or not something was the case based on sheer weight of numbers, as interviewees line up on either side of whether, say, JN-T’s boyfriend was a good or bad influence.
Similarly, there are several occasions where one interviewee will make a contentious statement about JN-T, about his sex life or his attitude to work, which is then followed by three or four better-informed interviewees saying that it wasn’t true for various easily-verifiable reasons. Again, in such instances a biographer should, I think, just have left the story out, as it’s a biographer having his cake and eating it; here’s a juicy bit of gossip which will surprise you, oh but I should add it’s almost certainly not true. So while the book is thorough, and even-handed, it lacks rigour. It gives too much emphasis to interviewees who have repeatedly shown themselves to be unreliable and biased in other areas.
The other point that concerns me, regarding rigour, is that sometimes it seems as if the stories about things that didn’t go very well during JN-T’s times have been selected and presented to show JN-T in a negative light; for instance, during the 80s there was an unfortunate contretemps between the Doctor Who production office and writer Christopher Priest. Priest has given two interviews on this over the years, once in 1990 (about 6 years after the event) and once in 2009 (25 years after the event). In the first interview, he states the problem was created by the script-editor Eric Saward, even going so far as to quote correspondence. In the later interview, he states it was solely JN-T he had the problem with. And yet this biography chooses to only present the latter version of events, selectively quoting to make it look like the dispute was between JN-T and Priest and was solely of JN-T’s making (and then notes that Eric Saward had to apologise for... er... what exactly?). So it seems that in this case, given two conflicting versions of events, the author has chosen to present only the one which showed JN-T in an unfavourable light and not the one which showed him as a victim of circumstances drawn into a dispute by his script-editor; I can’t help but wonder how many of the other stories have been selectively edited in this way.
I would also echo the criticism of the book made by Matthew Sweet in his review, that the writing style is occasionally distractingly, inappropriately glib; sex is 'fucking', apparently producer Philip Hinchcliffe ‘pissed off management’ while the Savile crisis is designated a ‘shit-storm’. It reads occasionally like a post on a Doctor Who forum; biographer Marson is incapable of mentioning any Doctor Who story without giving his verdict on how good or bad he personally regards it, almost like a nervous tic, which doesn’t create an impression of objectivity (even though I agree with most of his assessments). I sighed as I read the Graham Williams era being described as containing ‘undergraduate humour’; alas the book is littered with 80s fanzine clichés I thought we’d dispensed with decades ago. Marson can't resist sharing gossip about any deceased member of the production team, whether warranted or not, as though Peter Moffatt’s domestic arrangements might be of interest to anyone or shed any light on his work directing The Two Doctors. He also can’t resist dropping nod-and-wink hints about the behaviour of those who are still with us. We’re very much back in that DWB mindset with this book, and that’s probably the most depressing thing about it of all.
You see, in the mid-80s DWB was a Doctor Who fanzine that most of us bought because it was the only magazine that actually had up-to-date news, and at the time DWM was a pretty shoddy piece of work, padded out with regurgitated non-features (many written by Marson himself). DWB was a window into Doctor Who fandom of the time, which was, basically, poisonous, with a clique of older, well-off fans publicly savaging the show, its cast and its producer seemingly as a personal vendetta. Well, thanks to this book we do know it was personal. This book brought it all back; those fans’ ludicrously inflated sense of importance and entitlement, the egos (even now, they can’t resist building up their parts from insignificant bystander to crucial eye-witness). When one fan dismisses the show’s producer as merely a ‘caretaker’ that pretty much says it all; these half-dozen or so fans thought they owned the show, they thought they spoke for the rest of us, and they poisoned the whole atmosphere of fandom. It’s one of the reasons why I gave up on it all back in the 90s, it was just all too insular, bitchy and depressing.
And as this biography relates, they were astonishingly, excruciatingly sycophantic towards JN-T when they wanted something from him (i.e. visits to studio recordings) just as they were equally vitriolic when excluded. I’m not sure the story of 80s fandom is as significant in JN-T’s career as this book portrays it, but it is a fascinating subject, because it’s the story of a producer being seduced by fame, sexual opportunism and (American) fans treating him like a movie star, and becoming too close to certain fans as a result. It was a mistake, but given that no-one had found themselves in that situation before, perhaps a forgiveable one.
Yes, he shagged a few fans who were up for it. I suppose I must be pretty broad minded because I didn’t find it remotely shocking. Certainly not as shocking as Marson believes it to be, given that he twists himself in knots at the end of the chapter he has entitled with typical inanity ‘Hanky Panky’ to try to excuse what, to be honest, is behaviour that doesn’t really need excusing. Marson even brings up the notion of JN-T being a paedophile to dismiss it, as though any reader would naturally suspect that of any homosexual man who worked at the BBC. Such are these paranoid Daily Mail days that we live in.
The book takes as its two villains Gary Downie, JN-T’s partner, and Jonathan Powell. The ‘revelations’ about Gary Downie are rather sordid – I remember encountering him at a convention once and finding him pretty creepy – but won’t be news to anyone who read that horrendous car-crash of an interview with him that DWM published a few years ago in a rare lapse of judgement. Painting Powell as a villain, on the other hand, seems unjustified and wrong. Powell’s forthright manner doesn’t do him any favours on the printed page and like anyone in television he’s not short of people willing to slag him off but, well, the guy did know what he was talking about.
A bit of background. For the Trial of a Time Lord season Powell actually, for the first and only time, took an interest in Doctor Who and how to improve it. He read the scripts and gave detailed notes. And if you read the notes he gave, you’ll realise he was bang on the money and for someone who claimed not to like Doctor Who, he could still see how it worked and how to fix it. He spotted every weakness in Robert Holmes/Eric Sawards’ scripts and offered sensible, effective solutions. The fact that it was, by this point, very nearly too late is just the nature of television. If Holmes and Saward had actually implemented his notes then Trial would have been a better show, a much better show. But they didn’t, because it would’ve required too much effort. But how does Marson present this in the biography? The internal post ‘spewed up’ a memo from Powell of ‘closely-typed script assassination’. That’s just wrong, the fanboy knee-jerk response that Robert-Holmes-can-do-no-wrong-vs-a-meddling-executive-who-doesn’t-understand-the-show, and we’re back in DWB land again.
However, where the book is much stronger is on its portrayal of the BBC and its culture at the time; it seems to have been a drinking club that occasionally made programmes. The fact that some of those involved think that good stuff got made because, rather than in spite, of the boozing just shows how accepted it was in those days. It’s one of the untold stories that so many of the UK’s industrial problems in the late 70s were due to the drinking culture in the political and managerial classes; received wisdom has it that the unions caused all the problems but at least their members turned up for work sober in the afternoons.
And it’s telling, and quite sad, that JN-T was one of the last products of this alcohol-fuelled television culture, and that within ten years behaviour which had once been the norm was now a liability. And the other tragedy of JN-T’s career is that he devoted so much of it to understanding how to get the best out of the BBC’s internal production system, just as the BBC were about to dismantle it, so all his knowhow would turn out to be useless. And so JN-T found himself redundant, with nothing to do but drink himself to death, and this book is a (literally) sobering warning about the dangers of alcoholism and how quick and easy it is to kill yourself with booze if you put your mind to it. You’re left with a sense of loss, not so much at JN-T’s death but with the sense that even if even he were still alive, he’d have nothing to do except appear as a talking head in Ed Stradling's documentaries.
The above review might come across as negative, but I nevertheless recommend this book because there is so much in it that is extraordinary. Russell T Davies’ contributions are typically insightful and forthright, as are the interviews with the show's various actors and writers. The research on JN-T’s career before and after Doctor Who is unprecedented, and Marson writes movingly and intelligently about his own personal experience of grief. But, well, I just wish it had been more objective, more rigorous, more tightly-edited, and less of a nudge-nudge wink-wink DWB-filtered journey into Doctor Who Babylon. But maybe that’s what JN-T would’ve wanted.
Oh, and surely I can’t be the only one to guess the identity of the mysterious fan and source of fabricated Doctor Who gossip who drove a wedge between JN-T and Eric Saward? With initials ‘AR’ (who Eric, being dyslexic, would think of as ‘AW’)?