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Richard Marson – The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner review

Warts and all biography reveals the life and death of Doctor Who producer.

John Nathan-Turner

In March 2013 the tabloid press broke a story that would rock the fragile foundations of the public relations department of the BBC. With a much-hyped season of Doctor Who on the way, the timing could scarcely have been bettered when The Mirror trumpeted: ‘Doctor Who Sex Scandal’. The story, which was also triumphantly run in The Daily Mail, was lifted from a soon-to-be released book, The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, a biography penned by ex-Blue Peter producer Richard Marson.

A contentious and polarizing figure, John Nathan-Turner was a BBC staff producer who had risen through the BBC ranks from Production Unit Manager to become the longest-standing producer of Doctor Who from 1980 to 1989. Known simply at JNT, he oversaw the introduction of three new actors to play the role and suffered two cancellations in the process. Once celebrated for bringing the series ‘into the Eighties’, he was quickly blamed for the ultimate downward spiral and destruction of the series by 1989. It would take sixteen years for the series to return with universal popularity under the guidance of Russell T Davies.

Written by Richard Marson, a producer and journalist with a unique insight into BBC politics, JNT’s biography is much more than a potted history of somebody who happened to make a children’s television programme. The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, either by fault or design, is a raucous exposé of BBC Television in the 1980s, revealing its wild drinking culture, abuse of power and downright mismanagement from the Sixth Floor down. At the centre of this is JNT and his own heady journey; from aspiring creative, to hotshot producer, to destitute and dying alcoholic, it tells a fallibly human story in a corporate world.

Marson has meticulously collected many witness testimonies, from JNT’s earliest school friends right up to BBC executives such as Jonathan Powell, a man who clearly could not tolerate Doctor Who or JNT. The sometimes colourful account paints a cohesive picture of the showman destined to work in the theatre, to rise up the ranks of the BBC and perhaps even become Controller of BBC 1. Universally, JNT’s associates describe him as a bright, kind, perceptive and driven force who worked hard and partied harder. His faults are evident throughout the book, corroborating a reputation for being controlling, paranoid and occasionally outlandishly cruel, however the general view is that JNT was somebody that many people migrated towards due to his sheer love of life.

The book does not shy away from JNT’s critics, some of whom remain aggressively damning. Jonathan Powell’s contribution, whilst highly insightful, makes uncomfortable reading. The outright disdain JNT’s employer harbours to this day is barely veiled, referring to him as ‘f*****g John Nathan-Turner’, who he wished would ‘f*** off’,  ‘or die’. A vivid and passionate retelling of events in the words of the people who were there, the biography is composed of anecdote which licks as much as it spits.

Brimming full of salacious tales and gossip, the book makes for compulsive reading. Instances of plates flying, faces being slapped and indecent behaviour buttress JNT’s reputation as drama queen extraordinaire. An episode where he spits into a performer’s face, however, reveals the elements of his personality which verged on the monstrous. Flamboyant and outrageous, JNT could only wear his emotions on his Hawaiian shirt-sleeve, as demonstrated in his explosive hostility to the most benign incidents.

Often insecure with a destructive paranoia, Marson’s research doesn’t relent in presenting all the nasty, weak elements JNT’s character, which would result in the parting of many of JNT’s closest friendships. His professionally impulsive and indulgent mistakes are also closely studied; the costume designed for Colin Baker’s Doctor, which contributed to the massive downturn in tone for Doctor Who, is discussed at great depth, with Russell T. Davies branding it, ‘the greatest mistake in the history of television.’ Still a topic of hot debate, the unshackled opinions of the cast some thirty years after the event makes for fascinating reading.

The biography triumphs by painting a rounded portrait of JNT whilst also vividly presenting the environment of the BBC in the Seventies and Eighties, which contributed to make the misguided tyrant which JNT would become. The book also reveals the constant management restructuring and outright callous behaviour of BBC Bosses. The depth and detail of Marson’s book is, arguably, the final say on what happened to Doctor Who in the 1980s, which is inextricably linked to JNT and his own career politics. JNT often maintained he was ‘persuaded to stay’, cryptically refusing to fully explain the executive decision as to why he was continuously producing Doctor Who, much to the fury of some fans whom petitioned he leave. Revealed finally by Powell himself, this book objectively and plainly states the truth; JNT was forced into carrying Doctor Who as nobody else would take it on. If JNT left, the show would end. At the same time, all of his other creative projects were being rejected. In short, Powell hated JNT and hated Doctor Who; if he couldn’t cancel it he was happy to let it sink in a backwater with JNT at the helm. When the series was finally pulled due to dwindling figures against Coronation Street, JNT was effectively made redundant with it. Two nuisances, as far as Powell was concerned, had been dealt with. Throughout JNT’s final years at the BBC, he maintained an outward front of being ‘asked’ to maintain the series, when in fact he was trapped, degraded and being treated as a persistent pest by the organization that had promoted him and suddenly no longer wanted him around.

Marson’s triumph resides in a book that puts in clear context just what JNT suffered professionally and emotionally as the BBC changed around him and doors began to close. Many of the producer’s critics may be forced to reappraise their opinion of a show which JNT, without choice, kept running against mounting difficulties with no champion or duty of care from the top. Marginalised and passively mistreated through successive back-turning, JNT’s story of success quickly becomes a depressing account of a man consumed and trapped.

The source of much of the tabloid scandal is sourced from the chapter aptly named Hanky Panky, which details JNT’s (and specifically his partner Gary Downie’s) sexual activities, occasionally at the BBC with Doctor Who fans, or ‘Barkers’. Occasionally inappropriate and certainly manipulative, JNT’s exploits with other young men aren’t entirely surprising nor shocking to a mature reader. It is Downie’s predatory behaviour, however, which is the sinister element of this book. Marson’s retelling of how he was stalked by Downie through BBC offices after hours, armed only with a script of Timelash to defend himself, is now almost farcical. But it is a chilling reality that a member of what was essentially a children’s show, was pressing himself upon fans, often with the promise of a Doctor Who souvenir or job on EastEnders. Downie is very much presented as the corruptive villain in JNT’s pantomime life, whispering half-truths in his ear and generally dragging him into a sleazy, hedonistic world of wild sex, drugs and alcoholism. Indeed, it is the conclusion of many that JNT should never have been with Downie, coined by one contributor as a partnership which was a ‘toxic cocktail’.

Perhaps the greatest insight is Marson’s revelation of the depressing final years where JNT suffered indignities and illness, which will provoke pity even from the most critical barker. Facing redundancy after the cancellation of his programme, alone in a BBC office which was being shut down around him, and rushing a succession of increasingly pathetic pitches to the BBC, JNT returned to pantomimes with diminishing returns. His premature death followed years of alcohol abuse and desperation to find some kind of work, often scrabbling around with little Doctor Who projects and convention appearances to keep busy.

A brutal read but engaging and often outrageously funny, Marson presents testimonies with a journalistic flair, occasionally providing an opinion but mostly allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence. This may well be the best book ever written about Doctor Who and it is certainly the most salacious and adult, making for scurrilous reading. It is, however, one of the finest books about the BBC and its methods in the Seventies and Eighties. JNT was the typical boy on the floor who worked hard and made good through the system. In many ways it is an inspirational book, and the young JNT is a figure who can only be admired within a corporation which offered endless possibilities. The mature, destitute JNT of later years remains as an example of how that same system became deeply flawed, serving to criticise the methods which today seem barbaric and reprehensible. Constantly insightful and regularly shocking, The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is essential reading for anybody interested in the performing arts industries, exposing the business in all its pomp and cruel reality.

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