Donald Cotton

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Donald Cotton
Born Donald Harry Cotton
(1928-04-26)26 April 1928
England
Died 28 December 1999(1999-12-28) (aged 71)
Sussex, England
Occupation Writer (former)

Donald Cotton (26 April 1928 – 28 December 1999) was a writer for radio and television during the black and white era. He also wrote numerous musical revues for the stage. His work often had a comedic bent.

Early BBC career[edit]

Cotton's scripts for the BBC Third Programme include Echo and Narcissus (1959), The Golden Fleece and Stereologue (both 1962) and The Tragedy of Phaethon (1965, described as a comedy despite the name). In 1960, he introduced Voices in the Air, a programme whose script included work not only by Cotton but also by other notable contributors including Harold Pinter, John Betjeman, Michael Flanders, Antony Hopkins, N. F. Simpson, Donald Swann, and Sandy Wilson.

Doctor Who scripts[edit]

The Myth Makers[edit]

In April 1965, Donald Tosh replaced Dennis Spooner as story editor on the BBC science fiction programme Doctor Who, and soon thereafter contacted Donald Cotton, an old acquaintance, to write for the programme. Tosh and incoming producer John Wiles were keen to push the boundaries of the programme, and felt that Cotton might be able to deliver a high comedy. His first script, The Myth Makers, a tongue-in-cheek historical based like several of his radio plays on Greek mythology, pushed comedic elements to the limit. Cotton's planned episode titles were altered due to BBC disapproval of the punning theme the author had devised for them. Only the original name for the second episode, Small Prophet, Quick Return survived at Tosh's insistence. William Hartnell is reputed to have been particularly unimpressed by the story and clashed with several members of the cast and crew during filming. Regrettably, none of the episodes of The Myth Makers still survive in the BBC Archives.

The Gunfighters[edit]

Tosh and Wiles were so pleased with his first script that Donald Cotton was quickly asked to submit another idea for Doctor Who and on 30 November 1965 Cotton was commissioned to write The Gunfighters. The idea was that this would, again, be a humorous take on the historical story; this time, the target would be the American Wild West (a setting which William Hartnell would later claim to have suggested), and specifically the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place on 26 October 1881. Eschewing detailed historical research, Cotton opted to hew closer to the version of the Gunfight which had passed into contemporary mythology, with Wyatt Earp as a stolid enforcer of the law and Doc Holliday as a rascally anti-hero. Once more, Cotton's script played fast and loose with other elements of true Wild West history.

To Cotton's chagrin, both Wiles and Tosh resigned from Doctor Who at the end of December 1965, to be replaced by producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis. Lloyd and Davis disliked the historical genre, believing that the viewing audience was more interested in science-fiction stories, and also felt that the comedic bent of The Gunfighters did not fit with their more serious vision of Doctor Who. For a time, the production team considered cancelling the story altogether and replacing it with Ian Stuart Black's The Savages, which would end up following Cotton's adventure into production. Regrettably, the production team's fears about the quality of The Gunfighters appeared to be borne out when the final three episodes equalled or exceeded the series' lowest Audience Appreciation scores to date. Indeed, The O.K. Corral episode, rating only 30%, would prove to be the all-time low-water mark for Doctor Who. These disastrous figures helped strengthen Lloyd's conviction that historical serials should be eliminated from Doctor Who altogether. This was not the only controversy surrounding The O.K. Corral: a dispute had arisen between director Rex Tucker and Lloyd over the editing of the episode, leading to Tucker requesting that his credit be excised.

The Herdsmen of Aquarius[edit]

The Gunfighters was Donald Cotton's last contribution to Doctor Who, although another submission entitled The Herdsmen of Aquarius (or The Herdsmen of Venus) was rejected by Gerry Davis in June 1966.

After Doctor Who[edit]

After helping to create Adam Adamant Lives!, Donald Cotton mainly confined his attention to writing and performing for the stage, although he would also become a novelist and columnist. He helped Tony Snell write the satirical 1968 album Medieval & Latter Day Lays, also known as Englishman Abroad. In the Eighties, Cotton novelised both his Doctor Who serials as well as The Romans for Target Books. All three rank as the most comedic and possibly the most unusual in the book range, being told in the first person and from a broadly humorous standpoint. He also wrote a novel called Bodkin Papers in 1986.

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