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Sci-Fi Boss Who Nursed The Doctor

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DESPITE a long struggle against BBC1 Controller Michael Grade, John Nathan-Turner was the longest serving producer on Doctor Who. He was in charge of the Tardis for more than 130 episodes from 1980 to 1989, when the BBC's amazingly durable sci-fi series was sent into a black hole.

He was a masterful publicist for the series, but in his relentless pursuit of column inches he incurred the wrath of the Whovians - as diehard fans are known - for cameo appearances by the likes of Nicholas Parsons, Ken Dodd and Hale and Pace.

They eventually came round to the casting of Sylvester McCoy, previously famous for putting ferrets down his trousers on the Ken Campbell Roadshow, as the seventh Doctor but never forgave him for Bonnie Langford's role as the Doctor's companion.

Born in Birmingham on 12 August 1947, Nathan-Turner appeared in several school plays and, while still a pupil at King Edward's School in Birmingham, became an extra in TV series such as The Newcomers, United! and Crossroads. He had to stop when his headmaster's wife spotted him in different dramas on consecutive nights.

By then he had been bitten by the showbiz bug.

He passed up a place at Hull University to become an actor and then assistant stage manager at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham before landing a job as floor assistant on the 1969 prime-time series of Doctor Who, The Space Pirates, which starred Patrick Troughton.

By 1980, he had graduated to producer, coming in at the tail-end of the hugely successful Tom Baker era, and oversaw the reigns of Peter Davison (1982-84), Colin Baker (1984-86) and McCoy (1987-89). He also recruited such companions in time travel as Matthew Waterhouse (as Adric), Janet Fielding (Tegan), Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown) and Sophie Aldred (Ace), as well as Langford, who lasted a year as Melanie Bush.

He earned plaudits for using respected actors such as Beryl Reid, Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock but upset Whovians by dispensing with K9, the Time Lord's robotic dog. His spin-off pilot, K9 And Company, failed to take off.

THE advent of more technologically sophisticated sci-fi dramas such as Star Wars jeopardised the future of the homespun Doctor Who, whose special effects on a shoestring included Bacofoil-wrapped aliens chasing the Doctor around a Surrey quarry doubling as some far-flung planet.

That was when Nathan-Turner's gift for grabbing headlines came into its own. The BBC earned a huge amount of unfavourable publicity when a Doctor Who season was postponed for 18 months in 1985 and the producer maintained the same strategy while controller Grade continued to sharpen his axe.

David Howes, a Doctor Who historian, applauds Nathan-Turner's knack for maintaining the programme's high profile.

"Brilliance and controversy went hand in hand with John, " he says. "His greatest achievement was managing to keep Doctor Who in the public eye. For instance, when Tom Baker was leaving John started the rumour that the next Doctor could be a woman. Of course, it wasn't true but John knew it would get the programme into the newspapers.

"Then, when Doctor Who was threatened with the axe, he masterminded the public outcry.

Because of the fuss, the BBC TV bosses grabbed Michael Grade and said, 'What do you mean, it's unpopular? It's on the front page of every newspaper'."

Eventually the Grade view won and the Doctor faced an enemy more powerful than the Master or the Daleks.

The programme was put up against Coronation Street, which meant its ratings fell to four million and axeing became inevitable. After its demise in 1989, Nathan-Turner developed various projects, including a children's TV show.

However, the Time Lord continued to be his most profitable outlet.

In 1993, he made Doctor Who: Dimensions In Time, which he called "a jolly romp". Shown in two parts - one during Children In Need, the other on Noel's House Party - it was a jokey production blending the last five Doctors with the EastEnders cast and drew an audience of more than 13 million.

After that, he worked on the official magazine Doctor Who Monthly and pursued video spin-off ideas, including Doctor Who: The Tom Baker Years.

He was at a Doctor Who convention just three weeks before he died. He also found time to set questions for Mastermind and commit his memoirs to CD.

He is survived by his partner, Gary Downie.

John Nathan-Turner, television producer.

Born Birmingham, August 12, 1947. Died Brighton, May 2, aged 54.

Spelling correction: David J. Howe

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  • APA 6th ed.: Rampton, James (2002-06-03). Sci-Fi Boss Who Nursed The Doctor. Daily Express p. 42.
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