Published on May 26th, 2010 | by James Whittington
Kasterborous contributor James Whittington brings us an exclusive interview with one of the biggest names in Doctor Who’s history, Barry Letts, who sadly died in November 2009.
In 2008 I had the opportunity of doing an email interview with Barry Letts for an Internet site that changed before it could be used. It wasnâ€™t until his passing in November that I remembered that it was sitting on my hard drive.
Below is that interview in full and is respectfully dedicated to him and the Doctor Who legacy he left behind. Thanks Barry, and the hours of entertainment you helped create for us.
James Whittington: Were you focused, when you were growing up, as to what you wanted to be?
Barry Letts: When I was four I was going to be in the Christmas play with my brother and sister (Pauline Letts) at the Little Theatre in Leicester, but it fell through because we all caught chicken pox. But from that time I was convinced I was going to be an actor and a writer. I wrote a play when I was six.
JW: You began your career as an actor and appeared in such shows as The Avengers. What do recall about this time?
BL: I felt completely at home. I was more at ease on the stage than, say, at a party. Live television felt very like the theatre. If there was a repeat you had to do the show again!
JW: Why did you turn to directing?
BL: Iâ€™d always been fascinated by movie-making, and when I started working regularly in TV I was hooked. It also made sense economically. I needed regular money.
JW: What was it like working on such shows as Z-Cars? What was the atmosphere on set like when making these live to broadcast shows?
BL: The adrenalin level was high, as in a first night in the theatre. If the performance went well, you felt as if you could jump over the moon.
JW: Youâ€™re famous to most of us thanks to your involvement on Doctor Who and your first duty was as director on the Patrick Troughton serial The Enemy of the World. What do you recall from the recording of this story?
BL: That I tried too hard. If Iâ€™d concentrated more on the actors and the script (which was very late in arriving) rather than cramming in so many technical tricks, it would have been a damn sight better.
JW: In 1970 you became the showâ€™s producer, now this was a time of great change such as the programme being broadcast in colour and the arrival of a new doctor, Jon Pertwee. Was it a dramatic time?
BL: Dramatic? Not quite the word. The whole feel of the show was changing, and together with Terrance Dicks as my script editor, I had a chance to make it as exciting as it had been when it started.
JW: You were also behind some of the best loves stories such as The Daemons, The Green Death and The Time Monster, where did the inspiration for these come from?
BL: These, together with Planet of the Spiders, were a collaboration between Bob Sloman and me. We each had an equal input into the storylining as well as the dialogue, but the original idea for The Daemons and The Green Death came from me and The Time Monster from Bob. Daemons was a development of the audition scene I wrote when I was casting Jo Grant, and The Green Death was a blatant attack on big business and its effect on the ecology of the planet, which I found profoundly worrying â€“ and still do. On each occasion it was Terrance who suggested I should develop these ideas.
JW: You also penned Jon Pertweeâ€™s last story Planet of the Spiders, was he an easy person to work with?
BL: In general yes. He was a great leader of the company, and made everybody in the cast feel at home.
JW: When Tom Baker was cast as the Fourth Doctor was he your first choice and why did you choose him?
BL: I talked to several others â€“ though I hadnâ€™t actually asked anybody to play the part. I might have cast Graham Crowden, Michael Bentine, or Fulton Mackay. Graham said he didnâ€™t want to commit himself to more than a year; Michael decided not to pursue the idea unless he could co-write the scripts (an impossibility) and I never actually spoke to Fulton about it. In the end I think Tom was the perfect choice.
JW: Why did you leave the show in 1974?
BL: Both Terrance and I felt that after five years weâ€™d given as much as we could. The same ideas were coming round again. And we both wanted to move on to other things. Jonâ€™s leaving gave us the opportunity.
JW: In 1976, you returned to direct the fan favourite The Android Invasion when Philip Hinchcliffe was producer. Had there been many changes in the running of the show since youâ€™d left?
BL: Not really. It was very early in the reign of Philip and Bob Holmes. Donâ€™t forget that in the early days, a new producer and his script editor are saddled with the decisions made by their predecessors. I and Terrance, for example, commissioned The Genesis of the Daleks.
JW: Again you returned for a season in 1980, how did that come about?
BL: John Nathan-Turner was the producer in every way. As â€œExecutive Producerâ€ I was merely standing in for Graeme Macdonald, the Head of Drama Serials, whose work load had suddenly doubled when he was asked to take on the Drama Series department as well. I represented the BBC as editor, so I saw the scripts, kept an eye on the production process in case help was needed with amorphous bodies like the â€œprogramme plannersâ€, and approved the final show for transmission. In retrospect I wish I hadnâ€™t put my name on it. It wasnâ€™t fair to John.
JW: The 1990â€™s saw two Doctor Who radio plays, The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space. What do you recall of these productions? Had Pertwee and the cast changed at all when approaching the characters?
BL: Jon, Nick Courtney (who played the Brigadier) and Lis Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith) had never left my life as I saw them at various conventions, but it was great working together again; just like old times. Jon and Nick said they couldnâ€™t make head nor tail of The Ghosts of N-Space, a view that was shared by some of the audience. But it was still very popular. It seemed perfectly clear to me!
JW: The 2005 resurrection of the show has been a huge success; would you go back to it if asked?
BL: No. Iâ€™m very glad itâ€™s been such a blockbuster. But I wouldnâ€™t be asked â€“ and quite right too. I wouldnâ€™t have asked Verity Lambert to join me when I took over, now would I?
JW: Barry Letts, thank you very much.
This interview forms the final part of out tribute to the legendary Barry Letts. Please see our other articles, The Barry Letts Influence, the topical Never Judge a Silurian by his Myrka and Primal Fear, the first part ofÂ what was to be celebration of Barry Lett’s Doctor Who era, which we reshaped into a tribute following his death.