Saturday, October 10, 2009

Barry Letts 1925-2009

When I read about the passing of Barry Letts this morning I was molten eyed, and indeed nearly did cry. I won't lie, I hollered an 'oh no' and my chin trembled, and for a short while here at the PC feeling extremely dismayed.
I never met Mr Letts, nor even corresponded with him, and so I know it is curious that I should have this response to a stranger, in contrast to the grand scale loss of life in recent weeks, but his death saddened me considerably.
Let me tell you why.
Barry Letts started his professional career as an actor, though soon moved into writing, directing and producing, and it as a producer of a little known television, of which I'm quiet fond, that he found success and fame, and came to mean something to me.
Yes, Barry Letts produced 'Doctor Who'.
Most significantly he produced the era of the third Doctor, as played by the inestimable Jon Pertwee. While the show had managed to survive by changing leading men ( thanks to the wonderful conceit of the 'regeneration' ), when Barry Letts took over he not only had a new Doctor, the the third actor to play the role , a famous comic no less, but the series was going to be in colour for the first time. A new era indeed. I sincerely believe that up until this point each new series built on the strengths of the previous, Hartnell's phase became more ambitious and experimental in the story telling, the Troughton episodes are rife with new cool monsters, and plots that would be the template for stories right through into the modern incarnation of the show, and Pertwee was colour, and scale. Pertwee took on 'The Avengers' in ruffled shirts and velvet suits. All colour and action, with a quibble of 'Quatermass', this was a new style of Doctor Who: car chases, shoot outs, more ambitious effects using the new technology of chromakey, and more ambitious stories told.

Barry Letts, and his script editor Terrance Dicks ( the first author whose name 'meant' something to me, who in many ways inspired me to be a writer ), concocted so many classic, and essential elements, central to the strength and popularity of the show, it seems that once Letts took over the show experienced the very renaissance required to perpeatuate it. While he had inheireted the concept of the exiled, earthbound, Doctor, ( something he seems to have resented ) , Letts fostered the talents of the Dicks and mighty Robert Holmes, and filled those five years with everything about the show that I love: The Master, ( played so malevolently by the fabulous Roger Delgado ), Jo Grant ( Katy Manning's hilarious ditzy turn and her way-out wardrobe ), Sontarons, Silurians, Sea Devils, Autons, multiple Doctors, Omega and the origins of Time Lord history, Ogrons, Sarah-Jane Smith ( the gorgeous Lis Sladen), and the U.N.I.T. team; Benton, Yates a good dozen or so soldiers and the stoical, yet twinkly-eyed, Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart. ( Admittedly Lethbridge-Stewart did appear in a couple of the Troughton episodes lower in rank, but it was the Letts that allowed Courtney plenty of room to perform and shine. Who can forget the classic line from Letts' own script for 'The Daemons' when the Brigadier facing a living gargoyle demands a subordinate: "...chap with wings, ten round rapid." )

Balanced against all that of course is Alpha Centauri, from 'The Curse of Peladon' and 'The Monster of Peladon' but I think that scales still tip firmly in the favour of Mr Letts.

This was the Doctor Who of my childhood. Jon Pertwee and his little yellow car Bessie. The Brig bellowing at Benton. The Brig and his continuity nightmare moustache. The Doctor and the Master squaring off, old foes fencing with ripostes and rapiers. The credit sequence with the wavy red lines that always made me think of fire. Week night re-runs of 'Carnival of Monsters' with the howling Drashigs, 'The Green Death' with the giant maggots and the oscilloscope screen visualising the speech of BOSS, 'Spearhead from Space' with the Autons, 'Claws of Axos', 'The Sea Devils', 'The Time Warrior' and the long time favourite 'Day of the Daleks' .

Messrs Letts and Dicks over recent years have begun to be regarded as the elder statesmen of the program, a double act that could have been written by Robert Holmes himself. Both gents continued to write novels, individually and together, appearing on the DVD commentaries and documentary footage, contributing to magazines and conferences with unwavering gusto and vigour. In fact it was during one of the documentaries on the recently released 'War Games' DVD set that Barry Letts appeared and, to my dismay, he was looking very much worse the wear for chemotherapy. I can remember being glassy eyed and quite shocked at the time. Up until this point Letts had seemed so impervious to age, and illness. His contributions on the DVD docos and commentaries were always erudite, passionate, entertaining, and often exhibited an impressive memory ( try and think about what you were 10 years ago, let alone 35 ), and always proved constant highlights. No doubt that the forthcoming 'Dalek War' dyptych while be the final opportunity to experience Letts discussing the show. Perhaps the restoration team, and the producers of the DVD releases will have a backlog, though unfortunately this material will be finite.
Several years ago Letts wrote a partial memoir, 'Who & Me' of his time on Doctor Who, and perhaps this will remain unfinished. He recorded the full work providing a more intimate experience of his 'story', and if you're a fan of show, I strongly recommend seeking it out.

The one thing that Barry Letts could be remembered for, beyond his Pertwee era, or any of the other TV programs he worked on ( 'Moonbase 3' for sci-fi fans ), is probably one of the most significant decisions anyone made on the show since its' conception.
In fact Barry Letts can claim to have helped shape pop-culture as we know it.
He was the man who cast Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor.

The very first experience I had of Doctor Who, all those years ago, ( I'm not really sure how old I would have been...8...maybe? ) was Tom Baker's first episode 'Robot'. Now, I'm not going to launch into what would be a prolonged reminiscence of the show, but I only mention this for fact that that story was the last one that Letts ever produced. Alpha and Omega, indeed. He would return later on to direct 'The Android Invasion' and acted as executive producer during the initial year of John Nathan-Turner ( and Tom's final year ), before continuing on to work on other serials and dramas. It was some time later that he would work on radio with Pertwee, Courntey and Lis Sladen again for two plays, and again to pen several books featuring his leading man, never really relinquishing his love for the show.

To finish, I just want thank you Mr Letts for the passion you tipped into a television show that I enjoyed so much as a child, and still do now. Thank you for the novelization of 'The Daemons', the original books, the radio-serials, and for the wit, intelligence and honesty offered in the self-analysis of your work and career. If Verity Lambert was the mother of Doctor Who, then you surely where the kindly, soft-spoken avuncular figure who kept it on the straight and narrow (with Dicks as your ever reliable side-kick, and Holmes and Hinchcliffe as the dodgy cousins most likely to get it into trouble).

While your future contributions shall be missed, your efforts shall live on; for your creations fueled the imagination of this little boy and made his dreams what they are today, and I'm sure that I'm not alone. Not at all.

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