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Nathan-Turner at the Doctor Who "Whovent" convention, USA, September 1986
12 August 1947
|Died||1 May 2002
Brighton, East Sussex, England
|Cause of death||Liver failure|
|Partner(s)||Gary Downie (1972 – Nathan-Turner's death in 2002)|
John Nathan-Turner (12 August 1947 – 1 May 2002), born John Turner, was the ninth producer of the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, a post he held from 1980 until 1989. He is, to date, the longest-serving Doctor Who producer.
Born John Turner in Birmingham, he adopted the double-barrelled stage name John Nathan-Turner in order to distinguish himself from the British actor John Turner. He was educated at King Edward VI School, at Aston in Birmingham, where he showed an early interest in acting and theatre. His earliest television acting work was as an extra (supporting artist) in TV productions for ITV, including Crossroads and Flying Swan. Both shows were made in Birmingham (the former at ATV's Aston studios). On leaving school, he initially worked as an actor and assistant stage manager at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre. He was later taken on by the BBC as a television floor assistant, working on every type of show (from light entertainment to news and current affairs), including - more importantly for his later career - drama. Shows produced by the BBC's drama department that he worked on included The Pallisers, How Green Was My Valley, Angels and All Creatures Great And Small (where, on this last, he worked extensively with future Doctor Who star, Peter Davison). An assignment to the BBC's light entertainment department also led to him spending two years working on The Morecambe And Wise Show, prior to Eric and Ernie's 1978 move to ITV.
Having joined the BBC as a floor assistant in the 1960s, he first worked on Doctor Who in 1969 as part of the floor crew at a time when the series was recorded in Studio D at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios. The first serial he worked on was the Troughton story The Space Pirates in 1969, on which he was credited under his real name, as John Turner.
He later worked on Doctor Who in the Tom Baker era, as production unit manager under producer Graham Williams from 1977 to 1979. He accepted the post of producer for Season 18, the last to feature Tom Baker as the central character, the Doctor. He subsequently cast the next three actors to play the role: Peter Davison (1982–84), Colin Baker (1984–86) and Sylvester McCoy (1987–89).
His first endeavour, on being appointed producer, was to generate publicity (and, thereby, potentially boost the ratings for his first season in charge) during the interregnum: the unusually long gap between the transmission of the final Tom Baker serial, early in 1981, and the launch of the Peter Davison era, which (due to scheduling changes) would not happen until the following year. He therefore set about persuading his BBC bosses to fill the gap by scheduling an unprecedented season of repeats - five complete serials - in the autumn of 1981 (broadcast across five weeks, under the banner title The Five Faces of Doctor Who); and, additionally, to schedule a one hour Christmas special in the December, entitled K9 And Company (a project to which he gave the working title Sarah and K9), starring popular former companions K9 and Sarah Jane Smith.
Nathan-Turner's experience of working with Graham Williams helped form his views on the future direction of the Doctor Who series. He strongly felt that many people working on the programme (including Williams himself and star Tom Baker) no longer took the show seriously: it was parodying science fiction, rather than presenting serious storylines. He believed that Williams had allowed Baker too much influence on the show's direction, rather than confronting Baker over his increasingly comedic acting style. Nathan-Turner, together with new Script Editor Christopher H. Bidmead, decided Baker's creative influence needed to be reined-in. For Nathan-Turner's first season in charge of the show, former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts was appointed Executive Producer, and acted as an advisor for Nathan-Turner in this period (although Letts has said that his involvement in the production was minimal).
Nathan-Turner decided on a new broom approach, and instituted sweeping changes: replacing the original Radiophonic theme music with an electronic score, and introducing revamped opening titles and a new closing credit sequence (featuring a new photograph of Baker, replacing the original taken in 1974). He also commissioned BBC costume designer June Hudson to create a new costume for Tom Baker, giving her carte-blanche (including permission to discard the trademark scarf, though in the event she merely gave it a new burgundy and purple pattern), and insisted that question marks be included in the costume's design.
As Nathan-Turner had no writing experience, choice of the stories for production was left largely to the inexperienced new script editor. This at once led to difficulties, with the second story to enter production, Meglos, suffering from all the problems which Nathan-Turner had identified in the show's scripts under Graham Williams (a lack of realism, an over indulgence in comedy). Nathan-Turner's first major story influence was in bringing back the Master, but the details of this he left to Bidmead. After Nathan-Turner's first season in charge, both Bidmead and Letts left the series, along with stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. Letts was never replaced. Bidmead was briefly replaced with Antony Root, then more permanently with Eric Saward: the latter would be script editor for much of Nathan-Turner's remaining time as producer.
After the successful return of the Master, Nathan-Turner realised the show could benefit from the publicity inherent in bringing back popular characters and monsters from its past – Earthshock in Season 19 enjoyed considerable publicity from featuring the return of the Cybermen, after an absence of 7 years. Season 20 then saw the return of Omega, the Mara, the Black Guardian, and the Brigadier. The Daleks also returned, but the re-use of classic villains often proved complex for script editor Eric Saward and the show's writers. Nathan-Turner, however, was largely focused on generating publicity for the series, something which he also achieved by the device of casting high profile, well-known actors (mainly from the world of light entertainment) as guest stars.
Continuity, in itself, did not interest him: he rarely used directors or writers who had worked for previous producers. The few exceptions were director Pennant Roberts, and the writers Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.
By coincidence, Nathan-Turner's tenure occurred during a period of large growth in the show's fan base in the United States, thanks to repeated showings there of the Tom Baker serials on affiliates of the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network. Nathan-Turner became a familiar face among the many Doctor Who celebrities who made appearances during PBS fundraising drives, held to finance the purchase of more Doctor Who serials for screening in the USA.
In addition to his work on the television series, for some years during the Eighties Nathan-Turner's interest in light entertainment led to him producing an annual Christmas Pantomime, at the Tunbridge Wells Theatre, starring the incumbent Doctor and other members of the cast. The first of these, in December 1982, starred Peter Davison and co-starred Anthony Ainley (the Master) and the actress Sandra Dickinson (who at that time was Davison's wife, but later guest starred in Doctor Who with Jon Pertwee, on Ghosts of N-Space).
Criticism of his production decisions was wide-ranging, from employing too many back-references (thereby limiting the scriptwriters, and confusing the casual viewer), to employing excessive violence in Colin Baker's 1985 season, to his hostility to using writers and directors from the show's past, and in the casting of guest stars best known for roles from light entertainment rather than from drama (including Rodney Bewes, Beryl Reid, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd and Hale and Pace).
He was criticised for the casting of companions purely as gimmicks: the character Tegan Jovanka (an Australian air-stewardess) was introduced solely to curry favour with viewers in Australia; whilst Peter Davison reported that the American character, Peri Brown, was introduced only in an attempt to endear the show to American viewers. Davison has said Nathan-Turner's decision to introduce an American companion merely to appeal to the American market was one of his reasons for leaving the show, as he felt it was wrong for the series, but led to his realising that - despite being its star - the direction of the series was out of his control, and he could do nothing about decisions he disagreed with.
In 1985, BBC1 controller Michael Grade enforced an 18-month hiatus on Doctor Who, publicly criticising the series as tired, violent and unimaginative. In 1986, after the series had returned (with a greatly reduced number of episodes per season), Grade insisted that Nathan-Turner replace the actor he had cast as the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, as a condition of it continuing.
Nathan-Turner also received criticism from his former Executive Producer, Barry Letts, for introducing the question mark motif on Tom Baker's costume. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy all said they were not happy with their wardrobe in the series. Davison disliked what he considered the "designer look" of his cricket attire; Colin Baker didn't approve of the tasteless multi-coloured outfit he was given (as he detailed in the documentaries The Story of Doctor Who and Trials and Tribulations); while McCoy was dissatisfied with his pullover being covered in question marks.
Nathan-Turner's casting decisions for the central role of the Doctor have also been criticised. Former script editor Terrance Dicks said of the three actors he cast: "The magic wasn't quite there." Former producer Philip Hinchcliffe claimed that, following Tom Baker's departure, the series "became a bit pantomime for me" and that Baker's successors lacked the "moral conviction" the earlier actors brought to the role. Nathan-Turner's script editor between 1982 and 1986, Eric Saward, disagreed with the casting of Colin Baker in particular, saying he lacked "the energy and eccentricity that the part calls for", and complained that Nathan-Turner hadn't discussed casting decisions with him. Saward was also unhappy with the casting of Bonnie Langford, saying: "I don't think she can act, let alone bring anything to the show."
Terrance Dicks was particularly scathing of Nathan-Turner's production of the show during an interview in 2013: "There was a decline, without a doubt. I think the people working on it, particularly John Nathan-Turner, were not fit for purpose, as it were. Colin Baker, for example, never got a chance with that silly costume, which I thought was a great shame. I was sorry, but I wasn’t surprised when they took it off."
After the series ended in 1989, and until shortly before his death, Nathan-Turner continued to be involved in Doctor Who-related events, and remained a familiar face at conventions.
He would go on to produce and write several Doctor Who videotape documentary releases during the early 1990s: The Hartnell Years, The Troughton Years, The Pertwee Years, The Tom Baker Years, The Colin Baker Years, Daleks: The Early Years, Cybermen: The Early Years, and a special release of the unfinished story Shada.
In the early 1990s he also produced the earliest Doctor Who commercial releases on audio cassette, for the BBC Radio Collection, creating narrated adaptations of television serials for which only the soundtrack remained. In these, he mixed the surviving soundtrack with a narration (written by himself) explaining the missing pictures, using as narrator actors who had played the Doctor. In the aftermath of Patrick Troughton's death, he contracted Jon Pertwee (for Tomb of the Cybermen), Tom Baker (for Evil of the Daleks), and Colin Baker (for The Macra Terror) to narrate Troughton-era stories which, at that time, were missing from the BBC's film archives. Many of these double-cassette releases were subsequently re-released on CD after 2001.
Nathan-Turner also co-wrote the 1993 charity special Dimensions in Time for the show's 30th Anniversary, and co-presented the BSB 31 Who programmes during their 1990 Doctor Who Weekend. He made his final contribution to the series when he appeared in a retrospective on the 2001 DVD release of Resurrection of the Daleks.
A long term drinker and smoker, Nathan-Turner was in poor health in the last years of his life. He contracted an infection and died (of alcohol-related liver failure) just over a year before the announcement by the BBC that Doctor Who would be revived, with new episodes to air beginning in 2005.
Openly gay, he was survived by his long-term partner, Gary Downie, who was also a BBC employee (ultimately becoming a production manager with BBC Television). They met in 1972, and worked together on All Creatures Great and Small, where Nathan-Turner was Production Unit Manager (Downie was the Assistant Floor Manager at BBC Pebble Mill on series 3), and on Doctor Who. Downie, who was born Roderick Pinkus in South Africa in 1940, died on 19 January 2006. He spoke of his life with Nathan-Turner in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine.
Richard Marson's book, The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (2013), alleges inappropriate sexual behaviour on Nathan-Turner's part. It claims Nathan-Turner and his partner, Gary Downie, were preying on male teenage fans during his period as producer of the series. The age of consent for gay men at the time was 21 in the UK.
- Doctor Who - The TARDIS Inside Out (May 1985, Picadilly Press Ltd., by John Nathan-Turner and illustrated by Andrew Skilleter, Paperback; October 1985, Random House Children's Books (library), Hardback)
- Doctor Who: The Companions (November 1986, Picadilly Press Ltd., by John Nathan-Turner and illustrated by Stuart Hughes, Paperback; January 1987, Random House Children's Books (library), Hardback)
- JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner By Richard Marson (May 2013, Miwk Publishing Ltd.)
- BBC (3 May 2002) Doctor Who producer dies BBC. Accessed 15 August 2008.
- "Death of former Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner" (Press release). BBC. 2002-05-02.
- "Doctor Who - A Brief History of a Time Lord - Colin Baker". BBC. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
- Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "Warriors of the Deep" (1984, 2008)
- Matthew Sweet "JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner by Richard Marson – review", The Guardian, 22 March 2013
- Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "The War Games" (1969, 2009)
- Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "Revenge of the Cybermen" (1975, 2010)
- "The Revelations of a Script Editor. Starburst. Issue 97. September 1986
- Harrison, Ian (22 November 2013). "Doctor Who writers Neil Gaiman and Terrance Dicks talk to The Reg". The Register. Retrieved 10 April 2014.
|Doctor Who Producer
Peter V. Ware (as title)
Philip Segal (as showrunner)