Gareth Negus reviews the new biography of Doctor Who producer, John Nathan-Turner
Becoming, and more particularly remaining, a Doctor Who fan in the 1980s was – with hindsight – an odd and sometimes uncomfortable experience. Of course, some might say being a Doctor Who fan at any time was rather odd, but the 80s were the decade during which the programme fell from public favour and was regarded as an embarrassment by the BBC.
A biography of John Nathan-Turner, the man who produced the series throughout that decade, would seem to be about as niche as niche publications get. It’s easy to imagine a book on Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat on the Waterstones shelves, but Nathan-Turner was known for producing Who and pretty much nothing else. BBC lifers – of the sort which Nathan-Turner had apparently thought he would be – might enjoy the gossipy anecdotes and tales of the inner workings of Television Centre in decades past, but that’s probably not a large enough group to make a bestseller.
Yet Richard Marson’s new book, JN-T: The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner has had a fair bit of press coverage. Unfortunately, that’s largely thanks to the chapters detailing the sexual exploits of Nathan-Turner and his partner, Gary Downie, which – though not, by any stretch of the imagination, in the Saville league – occasionally sound dodgy enough that you think people should have been disciplined, if not fired. The pair regularly propositioned Doctor Who fans for sex, including many who were under the then age of consent for homosexuals (though they would be legal under today’s laws). One incident, described on page 194 of the book, is a clear case of sexual assault experienced by the author himself.
This was all a bit of an eye-opener for me. I went to a few conventions in the latter years of JN-T’s time as producer, but clearly didn’t fall into the category of ‘doable barker’. Perhaps I should be offended. I had finally twigged that Nathan-Turner was gay (something I failed to spot during his many appearances on Saturday Superstore and the like, however obvious it seems now) but it was a shock that he either slept with (or tried to) many of the prominent fans of the time, people whose often splenetic writings on the then-current show I was reading on a monthly basis.
The story of how Nathan-Turner got into bed with fandom – literally as well as figuratively – and how that led to recriminations and regrets all round is by far the most interesting element of Marson’s book. Who fandom was a poisonous place in the mid-80s, especially following the 18-month suspension of the series by Michael Grade (which the book makes clear was actually an attempt at outright cancellation, which the BBC bottled). Anyone who thinks Moffat was given a rough time on Twitter should try reading some back issues of DWB (whose editor, Gary Leigh, also had occasion to evade Nathan-Turner and Downie’s advances), which spearheaded the ‘Operation Who’ campaign to get Nathan-Turner sacked.
The clip above, from Did You See inspired the phrase “Hell hath no fury like an overgrown schoolboy scorned” from, I think, Mark Lawson. It includes talking head appearances by some of the fans involved in the anti-J-NT campaign, most notoriously Ian Levine, the record producer and DJ who was an unofficial consultant on the programme in the early 80s before a falling out with the producer:
“In modern parlance, [Nathan-Turner] lost no time in making Levine his ‘bitch’, literally as well as figuratively. ‘I remember going to Brockley in about 1980,’ frowns Levine, ‘and that’s the one time I had to get fucked by him – he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had no choice. It was, ‘You want a favour, I want a favour back’.’” (Marson, p123)
The last chapters of Marson’s book are extremely sad, detailing Nathan-Turner’s professional frustrations (the BBC made him redundant and he failed to get any further series into production) and personal problems (he was an alcoholic).
The biography is worth reading alongside other books on Who fandom of the era, most particularly Miles Booy’s Love and Monsters, which contains a lot more information on fandom and fan coverage of the series during that decade. In many ways, it tells the same story as Marson’s book, but through the eyes of the fans rather than those of the producer and his colleagues.
It’s a story that I find fascinating, as it was taking place throughout the years when I was growing up: how a television programme that started the 80s as an established success became loathed by the corporation that produced it, and an albatross about the neck of the career producer for whom it had once been a big break.
In fact, maybe I was wrong to see this as a niche book. There are many people who are fans of something – a football team, a pop star, an actor, a TV programme – and the objects of their affection may find they need that attention more than is healthy. The story of John Nathan-Turner’s era on Doctor Who is the story of what happens when a producer of a beloved product forms a mutually dependent relationship on those who love it most, and how that relationship can become mutually destructive. Nathan-Turner was surely not the first person to be consumed by that kind of love, and he probably won’t be the last.
JN-T: The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is available from Miwk Publishing
Gareth Negus can be found tweeting here.