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The real villains of 1980s DOCTOR WHO

Tom Pheby jumps into a Type 40 TARDIS and travels back to the 1980s. A time when Doctor Who was clinging on for dear life thanks to some behind the scenes villains!

You can forget about the Daleks, Cybermen, Sil and even the Kandyman, because the real villains of 1980s Doctor Who were operating behind the scenes. A trio of characters who, through their interfering, tinkering and poor decision making lead to the show being cancelled and disappearing from the BBC for 16 years. Standing guilty in the dock are Michael Grade, John-Nathan Turner and Jonathan Powell. We'll start this trial with Grade.

It's very difficult to write a piece about Michael Grade's involvement in the demise of Doctor Who without being ridiculously hostile towards him. The cigar puffing Yoda lookalike who assumed the roll of controller at the BBC in 1984 seemed to take an instant dislike to the series, hacking the budget and forcing it to take an 18 month hiatus between 1985 -1986. He alleged that the show had lost viewers, become too violent and lacked imagination. He went on to add that the long running series had become tired and needed a rest if it were to continue for another 21 years, but this was merely a smokescreen to disguise the fact that he wanted Doctor Who to end.

Grade is not a natural barometer of what the public likes or wants, and just to illustrate that point it's worth knowing that he nearly cancelled Blackadder for being 'unfunny'. The real truth about his feelings concerning Doctor Who were uncovered in 2002 when Grade finally admitted on Room 101: "I thought Doctor Who was rubbish, I thought it was pathetic. I'd seen Star Wars, Close Encounters and E.T and then I had to watch these cardboard things clonking around the floor trying to scare the kids", he also admitted that he had little or no interest in Science Fiction. These days he's more known for his amusing anecdotes on the 'good old days of television' but if I ever get the chance to appear on Room 101 myself, then the pinstriped gargoyle of a man might well experience a journey to the bottom of the chute!

A fine example of the controllers heavy handedness was the way that Colin Baker was dispatched. It was said that the overwhelming reason for sacking the Sixth Doctor was because of his acrimonious divorce from former wife Lisa Goddard, a close friend of Grade's. All this has to be taken with a large pinch of space dust, but you have to agree that it doesn't look that good on paper.

Grade allowed the show to limp on but kept the shackles firmly in place, appearing to show support but removing it behind the scenes. If he didn't push Doctor Who off the cliff, he certainly took it to the edge and preyed for a prevailing wind. He was instrumental in manipulating the schedule, placing it in direct competition with 'Coronation Street' on a week night, and with the budgets already halved it was no surprise that John Nathan-Turner was looking for the nearest door.

But the producer was informed that Grade had offered to give the show one last chance on the condition that Nathan-Turner would not be allowed to move on. If he did, the show would be scraped altogether. Some people may have looked upon JNT as a kind of 'hero' for sticking with the show in the late 1980s, but he'd already played his part in the destruction of 'Who' years before Grade sat in the BBC hot seat.

In 1980 Nathan-Turner took the series by force and dished out the changes like a prescription happy GP. He was responsible for some disastrous tweaks and poor decision making whilst he was head honcho. The theme tune, the costumes, the titles and credits all were instantly changed on JNT's insistence. Even Tom Baker's trademark scarf got a revamp. The changes to the sets were absolutely absurd too, I recall Baker huddled over a Tardis console the size of a wild mushroom. Were we seriously meant to believe that a massive, complex time machine could be operated from something resembling a Victorian writing desk?

Baker had served his time under 3 different Executive Producers before John Nathan-Turner was awarded the title, but after just one year with Nathan-Turner he was done. JNT needed to be Queen Bee, and there was no room for Baker in his hive.

Then there was the mind boggling introduction of the dreaded question marks that littered future productions. None of the actors who played the Doctor liked them, but no doubt that was considered clever by those involved, raising the question 'Who is Doctor Who?'. But for those of us that sat glued to the sofa for years we already knew the answer.

K-9 went to the kennels, the Sonic Screwdriver was destroyed and JNT continued to stamp 'his' name on the series with stunt casting of guests (Hale and Pace anyone?) and countless 'gimmicky' assistants. Peter Davison has claimed that Nathan-Turner's decision to introduce an American companion (Peri) in an attempt to appeal more to the American market was one of his reasons for leaving the role, because he felt it was wrong for the series, but when approaching JNT about his concerns he was basically told his opinion didn't matter.

Surely the worst decision of JNT's time was when he made our hero more clown than genius by introducing a costume stolen from the wardrobe of Roy 'Chubby' Brown. Colin Baker admits to this day that he despised his outfit and was in favour of draping the Time Lord from head to toe in Black. Nathan-Turner tried to explain this particular error of judgement and crime against fashion by saying "There were some complaints about the costume, and it’s nonsense. It was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. Colin’s costume is fine for the Doctor, he’s not a human like one of us, he’s an alien, he’s a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and so he’s bound to have different customs and different outlooks, and so it seemed logical to make it a bad taste costume. Bad taste in our opinion but not in his."

Because he'd spent most of Davison's years turning the show into a kind of space pantomime,  John Nathan-Turner decided it was time to 'bring Doctor Who up to date' and introduce a much darker style to the series when Colin Baker stepped out of the Tardis at the start of season 22. This just alienated a large number of fans to such a degree that JNT probably had to sneak out to the shops in a false nose and glasses for fear of reprisals.

One final nail that Nathan-Turner hammered into Who's coffin was with the casting of Bonnie Langford as Mel. Eric Saward, the show's script editor, was unhappy with the casting of Langford and argued with JNT saying "I don't think she can act, let alone bring anything to the show." But it didn't matter because what Nathan-Turner wanted, Nathan-Turner got. He loved light entertainment, and for him Langford must've seemed like the perfect fit for the show. Just for him though, I don't think anyone else in their right mind would've cast her.

Our third offender is Jonathan Powell, the man who succeeded Grade as controller of the BBC, and the man that finally cancelled Doctor Who in 1989. I still think the brunt of the blame lies with Grade, it was his manhandling and manipulation of the show that had it barely clinging to life. From a business perspective it's possible to argue that Powell had little choice but to cancel Doctor Who, but surely that was a terribly short sighted decision? Look at how much cash the show consistently generates for the BBC, even when it was off air in the 1990s it was still making bucketfuls of money in video's and via BBC Worldwide. Powell could've shown Gallifrey's finest a bit of love (cash, new time slot & publicity) and brandished some much needed TLC (more cash, better time slot, any publicity at all) on the series. Doctor Who could've got back to full strength without the need for a 16 year extended hiatus.

But I reserve my most withering criticism for Grade, who has managed to devalue nearly every television schedule he laid his hands on and introduced more disposable brain numbing drivel disguised as entertainment than anyone before him. If John Logie Baird were alive during Grade's time as controller of the BBC he may have considered whether it was worth the effort and developed the rotating lavatory brush instead!

Grade has always enjoyed being Michael Grade and could never get enough of himself, that's probably the main reason for him scaling the dizzying heights of something known by a select few as 'Channel Four'. He managed to close down production of a national treasure and instead gave us the monotonous 'Eastenders' and the Australian piffle called 'Neighbours', surely that says it all? He is given credit for reversing viewing trends whilst presiding over the BBC schedules, and was embroiled in a row with the Thatcher Government over its coverage of the Falklands. But for me he'll always be that man that deprived the public of Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat couldn't resist a poke and a prod at Powell, Grade and the BBC when celebrating the 50th Anniversary, saying the Beeb showed “outright stupidity & unforgivable blindness“ when axing the show and he cuttingly added " I wanted that 16 years to mean something". Ouch! And well done the Moff. 

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