The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Doctor Robert

Just finished reading Robert Holmes – A Life in Words by Richard Molesworth. It’s a biography of undoubtedly the greatest Doctor Who writer of them all, as well as being one of the most prolific and most influential. It’s a professional biography, dealing with Holmes’ working career rather than his personal life – it couldn’t really be more different from the JN-T biography – although unfortunately the result doesn’t give you a much of an impression of his personality was like beyond a few thumbnail soundbites, or any life lived beyond sitting at a typewriter smoking a pipe.

But in terms of Holmes’ career, it is a meticulous, thorough and exhaustively-research book. The largest chunk, in terms of original research, covers Holmes' career outside of Doctor Who, in particular during the 1960s. Reading it, it’s a little hard-going, as one run-of-the-mill pot-boiler thriller series blurs into another, alongside innumerable episodes of forgotten soap operas and medical dramas. But it gives you an idea of what a typical, plugging-away, nuts-and-bolts career in the early days of television was like. Holmes’ contributions to these shows are competent but unremarkable, and it’s not until he works on Doctor Who that he finds an outlet for his talents, his imagination, his richness of dialogue and his gallows humour.

The bulk of the book is taken up with his Doctor Who work, which is familiar but covered in precise detail. There are early synopses and numerous quotes from rare interviews with Holmes and his colleagues, along with letters sent by Holmes to Doctor Who fanzines where he sounds like a die-hard fan of the show, with ideas and opinions uncannily close to those expressed by Steven Moffat! There’s a sense that Doctor Who ‘got in the way’ of Holmes enjoying a more celebrated career, but also a sense that Holmes didn’t want that. Indeed, his attempts to pitch his own series are self-effacing to the point of being self-sabotaging; they are rambling, vague, almost unreadable documents which give little idea what the shows will be like or even if Holmes is capable of writing them. There’s a sense that he had no ambition to move outside his comfort zone; rather than generating new ideas, he kept resubmitting the same ones, which were unfortunately, mostly, crap. That said, his piloted-but-unbroadcast sitcom On The Run seems to have been the One That Got Away and both Northcliffe and Lituven 40 had great potential.

So there’s a lot of fascinating stuff for the Doctor Who fan to discover. Given the scarcity of interview material with Holmes, Molesworth uses every source available, which occasionally leads to some degree of repetition – we get several accounts of how Holmes came to write The Krotons, while we are told Robert Banks Stewart didn’t complete ‘The Foe From The Future’ because he’d got a job at Thames TV three times in the space of two pages (and then again on page 354!) I’m also a little doubtful as to Molesworth’s explanation of why Holmes didn’t contribute to the 1979 season of Doctor Who; it seems unlikely that the writing slots were ‘full up’ given that Adams went to so much effort commissioning and developing scripts from Allan Drury, John Lloyd, Pennant Roberts etc. and that he resorted to tried-and-tested writers more out of necessity than choice. It seems more likely that the theory put forward elsewhere in the book – that Holmes had given the production team the impression, intentionally or inadvertently, that he was ‘burnt out’ and wanted a rest from Doctor Who and/or that he had pissed off Graeme McDonald, was the reason he wasn’t approached (or was approached and declined).

Two other small niggles. The footnote on page 357 says that 2-hour version of The Chelsea Murders no longer exists, which is odd because it’s included in the Network DVD box set of Armchair Thriller. And secondly, the Appendix listing all of Holmes’ TV work appears to be missing its final page.

So, overall, a very good book, but one which could’ve done with a tighter edit. David Whitaker next, please.

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