Published on December 27th, 2011 | by Christian Cawley
Alwyn Turner on Terry Nation
Alwyn Turner is the man behind the recent Terry Nation biography, released earlier this year. The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation charts the career of the Dalek creator from inauspicious beginnings in wartime Wales to his death in 1996, covering virtually every “Exterminate!” comedy script and action adventure TV show on the way.
The book is quite a read, and covers almost 50 years of television; this should come as no surprise to anyone that has read Turner’s previous works such as Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!, two sizable accounts of usually nostalgic eras (the books cover Britain in the 1970s and 1980s) that are looked back on with some rare but welcome realism.
A diversion from these volumes (“I do like the ’50s though: from Austerity Britain to the cusp of Swinging London is a great story!”), the story of Terry Nation and the memorable worlds that he created is a must for all fans of Doctor Who and cult and classic television.
What aspect of Terry Nation’s career most interested you?
It’s only a small part of the book – for the obvious reason that his later work was more significant – but I’m fascinated by the early days when he was writing comedy shows for the radio back in the 1950s. Television was already making inroads, but radio still just about had the upper hand as the most important medium and, then as now, there was more scope for new ideas and new talent to get a hearing.
And Britain in the mid- and late-1950s was an exciting place. The 1960s were so noisy and have been so heavily chronicled that it’s easy to forget how much change there was in society and culture in the previous period. Nation was only a fringe player at that stage, but he was there and, like so many others, he was trying to make his name.
There are a couple of photos in the book of him and his then writing partners, Dave Freeman and John Junkin, looking wonderfully in period: shapeless trousers, heavy-knit jumpers and ungreased hair. They were part of the same generation that gave us the Angry Young Men, and who helped to transform the country.
How do you find the Hancock era material translates to modern audiences?
I grew up listening to my dad’s old reel-to-reel tapes of Hancock’s radio shows, and he was always my comedy hero. So I knew the story of how Hancock walked away from the BBC and from his longstanding writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, to make a series for ATV, with Nation writing four episodes. But I’d never actually seen that series – I don’t think it’s ever been repeated, and hasn’t appeared on video or DVD.
Watching the shows now, it would be hard to make a claim that Nation was in the premier league of comedy writers. None of the episodes are completely satisfying, either in the writing or the performance – Hancock was drinking quite heavily at this stage – and certainly they’re not up to the standard of the Galton and Simpson work.
But they’re better than they’re given credit for. So much of Hancock’s story has been filtered through the BBC’s version of events, and the implication has always been that he did nothing of worth after leaving the corporation (an account that doesn’t do justice to his superb film The Punch and Judy Man). There are scenes in Nation’s episodes that are very nearly vintage Hancock, even if the whole shows don’t quite hang together. And there are moments when the magic is turned on and you can see why Hancock continues to be so revered as a comedian. Given the problems of working with Hancock in that period, Nation did a pretty decent job.
Do you have a favourite episode from Nation’s work? Is there a favourite series?
In objective terms, I think the best writing is in the first three episodes of Survivors, the first episode of Genesis of the Daleks, and ‘Countdown’ from the second season of Blake’s 7. This is his mature work, when he was at the peak of his powers, and they all bear repeated viewings. (Though it’s always worth noting that they weren’t intended to be seen more than once, since repeats were much rarer in those days, and the video revolution hadn’t yet happened.)
But personally I have a fondness for much of his action adventure stuff in the 1960s and early-1970s. I don’t tire of watching Roger Moore and Tony Curtis sparking off each other in The Persuaders!, and I love the unglamorous grittiness of The Baron. And his 1972 play The Amazing Robert Baldick was a fine piece of work that could have developed into something of a classic if the pilot had resulted in a commission for a series.
The cover of the book has drawn some interesting comments, was it chosen to evoke that action TV era?
It’s a great cover, isn’t it? Sometimes I’ve found that the design of a book jacket is left to the last minute and can be a little disappointing. On this one, it was a long process of working through options and I think it’s ended up as the best cover I’ve ever had. There’s a nice pulp feel to it, harking back to – as you say – the action shows, but also to the comics that Nation grew up with.
The lack of character development aside through much of Nation’s work, do you find that modern TV series are harking back to that sort of era, or is it something that never really went away?
I’m not sure I entirely agree with your comment about the lack of character development. When it seemed appropriate – particularly in Survivors, but also in Blake’s 7 – he was perfectly capable of writing fuller characters.
But in general, Nation’s focus was on creating exciting adventure stories. And there’s always a need for that. It’s what he grew up reading, and watching at the movies, and he extended the tradition of action tales very successfully. He once talked about coming out of a screening of the first Star Wars film (which was released in Britain the month before Blake’s 7 debuted) and being green with envy at the special effects and the size of the budget. But those considerations aside, he was working in very much the same sort of field.
The sort of tale that makes you want to keep reading or keep watching to see what happens next and how it all resolves itself – that’s the essence of story-telling, and always will be. Escapist entertainment is seldom given proper critical respect, but it never goes out of fashion with the public.
Why do you think Terry Nation’s work has endured?
The best of his work still endures because of that element of story-telling. The conventions change, so that the trappings may look dated, but the essence remains: they’re cracking good tales.
And, of course, the greatest survivors of all are the Daleks. They’ve been around for nearly half a century now and they show no signs of going away. There are young kids coming to them now who are as captivated as their grandparents were back in the 1960s. When Nation sat down to knock out that first Daleks story in 1963 – rushing through the assignment in a week in order to get back to what he considered proper writing – he tapped into his own love of adventure stories and pulp science-fiction and conjured up an enduring myth. How these things happen is always a mystery, but their instant resonance can’t be denied.
I say in the book that the Daleks are the single most enduring creations of British television in the 20th century. It’s a bold claim but I really can’t think of any rivals. The Daleks were created specifically for the screen – rather than being adapted from literature – and their continuing appeal is not dependent on any specific writers or actors; they exist simply as themselves.
There is obviously some shared qualities between the Doctor and MacGyver (disrespect for violence, ingenious escapes, etc), but do you think that these types of characters can be in other shows or movies, or was it something that Nation brought to each show that stuck?
The same traits do turn up with great regularity in Nation’s work. He did like a hero who eschews violence and relies on his own improvisations to escape dangerous situations. And a lot of it comes from the thrillers he read as a child. Heroes like Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Saint – these characters might occasionally resort to fisticuffs or even, in extremis, to a weapon, but mostly they depended on their wits.
And that has an enduring appeal: the idea that brute force can be vanquished by intelligence and ingenuity, that a protagonist can triumph despite overwhelming odds. This is how we’d like to believe the world works, even if the evidence from real life suggests that it’s not quite true.
Terry tried very hard to protect the interest of the Daleks and make sure that they would always be of viable interest. Do you feel he protected them a bit too far or would you say that he did a good job making sure they were not over used?
After the first year of Daleks appearing everywhere on television, Nation’s main concern was that they shouldn’t be portrayed in a comic light. He reasoned that once they became laughed at on television, they would lose some of their power to scare young viewers. (The one major exception was Spike Milligan’s 1975 sketch in Q6, for which Nation gave his personal permission, in return for Milligan’s help with his career twenty years earlier.)
He was surely right to insist on this. There were always plenty of Dalek jokes and Dalek cartoons, but by keeping a tight grip on their official usage, Nation did preserve their mystique. During his lifetime, they remained unequivocally amoral. It’s a rare thing to have a fictional baddie who doesn’t acquire any sympathetic qualities through over-exposure, and it was worth hanging onto.
Discover more about Alwyn’s work at his website, www.alwynwturner.com. Meanwhile you can still purchase The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation by Alwyn W. Turner from Amazon where the RRP is reduced to just £13.25!