An exhibition to celebrate Radio Times’s 90th brithday had turned up a document from the BBC archive that reveals the corportation’s doubts about the show that changed British television for ever.
“I was unhappy to hear to-day that the proposal to give ‘Dr Who’ the front page of the ‘Radio Times’ had now been abandoned,” complained Donald Wilson, head of BBC drama serials, to Douglas Williams, then editor of Radio Times, on 5 November 1963 in an internal memo.
He was distressed that the magazine was reflecting an apparent lack of confidence by BBC controllers, adding: “I myself believe that we have an absolute knock-out in this show and that there will be no question but that it will run and run.”
Unfortunately for Wilson, his pleas for a reprieve for the show’s first episode An Unearthly Child fell on deaf ears and the cover star for the issue was Kenneth Horne, whose popular radio comedy Beyond Our Ken was the forerunner to Round the Horne. Doctor Who had to wait three months before landing a coveted RT front cover for its fourth serial, Marco Polo.
Radio Times wasn’t alone in having doubts about Doctor Who. Many within the BBC were uncertain what to make of this odd-seeming new drama, as the first ever Doctor Who director Waris Hussein explains: “Radio Times echoed the prevailing attitude, and it was only when the programme began to make its mark that the magazine started to give it a prominent billing.
“As far as I knew at the time, the BBC was fairly indifferent to [creator] Sydney Newman’s whole concept of Doctor Who. This was echoed in the placing of the production in basic facilities at Studio D Lime Grove. Donald Wilson was an old-timer used to a long tradition of how things should be done. [Producer] Verity Lambert and I were newcomers entrusted with what was considered a fill-in show for children between Saturday football and Juke Box Jury. There was no apparent need to promote an oddball show.
“By the time of Marco Polo, larger budgets were allocated to the programme and the road to 50 years of success was created,” he says. “Radio Times covers are very important in promoting a show and in the case of Doctor Who I’m proud to say David finally became bigger than Goliath.” Perhaps Marco Polo fitted a mould BBC executives were more comfortable with: it looked like a respectable costume drama with established actors such as Mark Eden (who later became Corrie’s Alan Bradley) supporting William Hartnell’s Doctor.
But of course Wilson was ultimately right – this was a show that was going to run and run, partly thanks to the introduction in December 1963 of strange-looking baddies called the Daleks. One year later, their return secured a second cover, with another (the fourth) in 1966 promising the return of the foes from Skaro.
The extraordinary thing about RT’s coverage of Patrick Troughton’s first adventure, The Power of the Daleks, is that there was little mention of the change of lead actor. With such a bold move likely to confuse viewers, the accompanying article worked hard to reassure fans: the presence of the deadly Daleks proved it was still the same show. Almost as an afterthought, the RT piece said: “Patrick Troughton, well known to children viewers for his role as Paul of Tarsus, appears in this serial as the new Dr. Who.”
And as the years went on, still Doctor Who had to fight for its covers. The first Cybermen cover came in September 1967, but in the whole of the 1960s there were just six. The 1970s saw five covers, all for Jon Pertwee and, perhaps the biggest surprise, not a single one for many people’s favourite Doctor, Tom Baker. One expla nation is that unlike Pertwee, most of Baker’s new series began in the autumn when other big- name programmes were vying for publicity.
In fact, Baker had to wait until 1983 for his first cover, a drawing of his face to mark 20 years and The Five Doctors special, when he had already handed the Tardis key to Peter Davison.
The 1980s’ dearth of covers was not helped by producer John Nathan-Turner’s refusal of a cover in March 1982 when the Cybermen were returning. He wanted to keep the surprise for the show (a brave move for a producer who later became infamous for publicity stunts). It’s a problem the 21st-century producers worry about, too; Russell T Davies, who resurrected the series in 2005, was criticised by some fans for allowing RT to reveal a Dalek-human hybrid on a 2007 cover ahead of its appearance on TV.
“I really like to keep surprises but I take my hat off to John Nathan-Turner for saving the surprise,” admits current showrunner Steven Moffat. “I love him for doing that.
“Radio Times is so important to us so it’s always a hard call,” says Moffat. His favourite cover yet has to be the one that introduced Matt Smith in 2010. “It’s not necessarily the best-looking one, but I remember the kerfuffle getting it together and, when it appeared, what it meant. You realised it was all happening – he was the Doctor. Sometimes when you make television there is an element of making home movies, especially with the effects and weird screens. Here it seems somehow more real, it came together.”
And would he have pleaded for a cover if he were running things back in 1963? “It’s a different show now. I knew Verity Lambert and part of her back then was amazed it broke through in the way it did. For them it was just the show they were doing at the time and they had no idea it would become what it was. But when I look back on the historic Doctor Who covers, I can imagine being a child again and looking at it and scrutinising it and probably thinking, ‘I want to write my own stories for it.’”
No doubt there are many young Steven Moffats of the future scanning RT in just that way right now…