Published on March 25th, 2013 | by Philip Bates
JN-T and Downie in BBC Sex Scandal?
An upcoming book, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, alleges that both Nathan-Turner and his partner (and production manager) Gary Downie groomed fans under the then-legal homosexual age of consent of 21. The book is written by former-Blue Peter writer and editor, Richard Marson, who worked for Doctor Who Magazine near the start of his career.
To promote the book, Marson talked to Starburst and recalled that Nathan-Turner was ‘ready with the blue pencil’ if he didn’t like what was written in DWM. Marson says that he wasn’t interested in getting to know the producer socially after an early encounter:
You’ll have to read that and see how much it makes your hair curl. I used to tell the story mainly for laughs. It happened after the first time I was invited up to go and see a recording of the show, and he just got a bit frisky, shall we say. I was a bit taken aback, I was only seventeen and at the time he famously said to me, ‘You’re so f****** provincial.’ And of course I was f****** provincial, I came from Bishop’s Stortford, I didn’t know anything about anything! I just thought I was in this kind of Wonderland that was Television Centre, thinking it was an amazing place, and so I wasn’t really prepared for anything very sophisticated.
Marson reportedly returned to the studios the following year and was abused by Gary Downie in a lift. The incident supposedly ended up with Marson fleeing and hiding from the production manager. He moves on, saying:
[As a student] I quite often used to be hitting my pillow in the early hours, and somebody would come and knock on the door with grim regularity at eleven o’clock in the morning, and they would say, ‘Marson, they’ve got the BBC on the phone!’ We had one pay-phone for the whole college that I was in, in this grotty little kitchenette, mounted on the wall, and I would have to rouse myself, drag on a dressing-gown and go in there, and Sarah Lee, John’s secretary, would be watching the clock and thinking, ‘Where the hell is he?’ and she’d say, ‘You’re keeping him waiting!’ You know when you first wake up and your voice is a bit croaky? John would be put through straight away and it would be, ‘Hi! How are you?’
Marson also says that a fan supplied the producer with male escorts in exchange for studio visits and souvenirs; and that Nathan-Turner engaged in a sexual act whilst on the phone to Biddy Baxter, then-Blue Peter editor. Marson says:
It would not be true to say I’ve found anyone willing to testify to coercion or abuse… I think what you had was a promiscuous gay bloke in a position where his social life was very actively busy, and he had the opportunity to meet a lot of young people, and did like getting off with young guys. I don’t think he was predatory particularly, I don’t think he forced himself on the unwilling, I haven’t found any evidence of that… I found I was much more cautious about his partner Gary, than I was about John.
I think John was just a go-with-the-flow, life-is-a-party, you know, ‘I’ll try it on and if somebody says yes, then that’s up to them.’ I have less of a benevolent view of Gary.
Richard says that although he found both John and Gary’s behaviour inappropriate, he never felt he should tell the police.
Nathan-Turner began working on Doctor Who as a floor assistant on 1969’s The Space Pirates, and became production unit manager of the show by Season 15 (which introduced K9 and wrote out Leela). He was asked to take over as producer after Graham Williams, and was responsible for casting three Doctors: Peter Davison (whom he had met on All Creatures Great and Small); Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. His reign as producer started with 1980’s The Leisure Hive and concluded when the classic era of the show ended with 1989’s Survival.
He was a highly-polarising character, of course; the 1980s were a turbulent time for fans, and though he was more welcoming to fans than any previous producer, many began to resent and blame him for the loss in ratings. There were even campaigns against Nathan-Turner.
But at the start of his work as producer, he was seen a s a breath of fresh air – and even when the show was ‘in decline,’ he was blamed for problems that likely weren’t his fault. It seems, in retrospect, that perhaps he was a scapegoat for the show’s problems.
In light of these allegations, a BBC spokesperson has said:
We cannot comment on individual cases but clearly allegations of this nature are extremely serious. We have set up the Dame Janet Smith Review to help us understand how alleged incidents of this nature could have been committed and how we can avoid them happening again.
So what of these shocking claims in the wake of the BBC scandal over Jimmy Saville? It’d be easy to say this is merely as publicity stunt; some will surely pick the book up just to find out more about these accusations, and the biography makes no qualms about its subject. Just look at its title, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner.
And even though he was a controversial figure, wouldn’t someone have made these claims before now? However, the same argument can be made about Jimmy Saville and other related incidents that have only recently come to light.
With others, though, there had been rumours in the past. With Nathan-Turner and Downie, nothing illegal had been implied (at least to my knowledge).
Plus, of course, the allegations feature only briefly in the book: much of it tells of how well-thought-of the producer was, and the story hasn’t yet been picked up on by many major publications (apart from The Daily Mail), despite preview copies being presumably sent out already. Of course, the story is bound to be a massive issue, particularly in Doctor Who’s biggest year. Marson says:
I did make decisions about what to leave in and what to take out; there was some stuff that I just thought was unnecessary, or too private. There are things that it will be difficult for people to read, and inevitably what will tend to happen is that sometimes people will take what tends to support their view or supports their argument and ignore what doesn’t. And you just have to be fairly resilient about that. I’ve said what I’ve had to say and shown what I’ve uncovered, but as I say I’ve really tried to fairly represent the perspectives of all the people closest to him, his family, his friends, his colleagues; so I’ve tried not to do that thing of, ‘I won’t include them because I don’t like them.’ It was very much an attempt to get everyone around the table, if you like. But there is a lot of stuff in there I think people won’t know, and I think some of it people will struggle with.
Marson even admits he relates to JNT more after researching the book than when he worked with him:
I think I perhaps have more compassion for him than I did before. I have enormous compassion for how things went for him professionally. You can’t, I don’t think, fail to be affected by the strength of feeling, of loyalty and love that there is expressed for him still, by a lot of people – who give their reasons; they don’t just say, ‘Oh I liked him,’ or ‘I loved him’; they’ve got reasons. Clearly John was capable of acts of real generosity and thoughtfulness, and in a way that touched people’s lives.
Of course, this all makes the selected review quotations in the book’s blurb sound decidedly grim and ominous. Fiona Cumming and Ian Fraser say:
Some of the revelations are painful (but) we find this very rounded, well written and honest.
BBC Head of Drama Series and Serials from 1981 to 1983, David Reid says:
Quite wonderful on many, many levels. Gripping, fascinating, appalling – and, by the end, truly moving. Immaculate research makes the whole utterly trustworthy. A very good and very well written book.
And Brian Spilby, Drama Serials Manager and Producer finally notes:
I must say you have skewered JN-T precisely. I can vouch for all of the facts and most of the opinions. It’s a very accurate – warts and all – picture you paint.
Whether these allegations are true or false is hard to ascertain, particularly as both Nathan-Turner and Downie have passed away. But we must also tread carefully for fear that the scandals at the BBC will descend into a witch hunt.