In a career spanning half a century, Verity Lambert produced some of the most popular and ground-breaking dramas on British television from Doctor Who to Minder to Jonathan Creek. Now Richard Marson, also a TV executive, has written the definitive book of her life…
What drew you to Verity as the subject for your biography?
I’ve always admired strong women in television. I worked for Esther Rantzen and Biddy Baxter, then became Biddy’s successor as editor of Blue Peter. Verity was the ultimate – she had an extraordinarily prolific, diverse career. I’d grown up watching her output (Doctor Who, Rock Follies, Edward & Mrs Simpson), though we met only once – in a BBC car park, where she launched into a tirade about her corporation bosses.
For the book, I spoke to 130 of her friends and colleagues. Melvyn Bragg speaks of her “combustible creativity”. Michael Palin, whom she cast in Channel 4’s GBH, says, “Someone would tell her that something couldn’t be done and she would get about a foot taller, her terrific eyes would blaze, she’d take a great drag on her cigarette and go into battle.”
Can you give a snapshot of Verity in her 1963 prime, launching Doctor Who?
She was the BBC’s first female drama producer and, at just 27, one of its youngest. “A bit of a freak” is how she put it herself. She was only too aware that many expected her to fail, believing she’d slept with her boss, Sydney Newman, to get the job. Both vehemently denied this. Newman, characteristically blunt, said he’d offered her the break because she was full of “p*** and vinegar” – just what the fledgeling Doctor Who needed. She had a sharp mind, and her volcanic temper inspired the nickname “Hurricane Verity”. Immaculately dressed, her hair styled by Vidal Sassoon, she chain-smoked her way through long working days and partied by night, propelled by her formidable energy and ambition.
Those days were captured in the BBC2 biopic An Adventure in Space and Time (2013) but in the book, her friends say they didn’t recognise the Verity they’d known.
“I think she would have wept with laughter,” is the verdict of fellow TV executive Linda Agran, while eminent director Moira Armstrong says, “Jessica Raine didn’t have the star quality necessary. Verity wasn’t beautiful but she was striking, unlike pretty-pretty Jessica Raine.”
Which other key shows did she produce?
Verity had extraordinary success throughout the 1970s. Her hits included ITV’s bittersweet Budgie (a vehicle for Adam Faith) and Shoulder to Shoulder, the BBC’s groundbreaking series about the suffragettes (starring Siân Phillips). Later, as head of drama at Thames Television and Euston Films, she made the innovative musical fantasy Rock Follies.
After the BBC passed on Rumpole of the Bailey, Verity spotted its potential for ITV, where it ran for years. She produced Edward & Mrs Simpson and the hugely popular Minder. She cast George Cole as the conman Arthur Daley (a name she also gave to her beloved Great Dane, who accompanied her everywhere).
Verity also championed The Naked Civil Servant in 1975…
She steamrollered through Thames TV’s financial objections and the IBA’s fears that viewers would be up in arms over such controversial subject matter. Instead, the film (in which John Hurt brilliantly interpreted the life of “stately homo” Quentin Crisp) was very successful and won a clutch of awards. “When you make television,” she explained, “you want to make contact with the audience.”
Did she ever find time for a private life?
Verity had tempestuous affairs with a string of men, including the film directors Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) and Alan Clarke (Scum). Her friends were aghast when she married Colin Bucksey, who was ten years younger and, as a cameraman, very much her professional junior. He’s now a high-profile director in America and won an Emmy for Fargo. Their marriage lasted ten years; he told me he’d wanted a family but Verity was adamant she didn’t.
Eldorado, BBC1’s 1990s soap, was a rare flop. How did she lose her Midas touch?
The show so nearly worked; it was rushed into production. There was a clash of egos between the producer Verity hired, Julia Smith (who’d launched EastEnders), and almost everyone else involved. Once Smith was fired, the show began to turn round. If the BBC had kept faith with it, it would almost certainly still be running today.
But usually Verity enjoyed collaborating with other women – supporting and elevating them in the business.
She didn’t regard herself as a pioneering woman but there’s no doubt she empowered many other women. She commissioned Lynda La Plante to write her first hit crime drama, Widows, despite telling her that her name sounded “like a transvestite trucker”. Her only condition was that La Plante let the women get away with the heist at the heart of the story. “A tigress and one of the most talented women we have ever had on television,” is how La Plante views Verity today.
Another famous protégé was Joanna Lumley, whom she invited to co-produce the lavish costume drama The Cazalets. “Extraordinarily generous,” says Lumley. “She was like the senior prefect; I walked around behind her watching how she did things.” Polly Hill, the BBC’s new drama controller, began her illustrious career in the early 1990s developing ideas for Verity.
What were her most important final projects?
She took over Jonathan Creek for its second series. Its creator David Renwick adored Verity and valued her honesty. “We became such great friends. You get to a stage where you can just say whatever you want to each other.” Her final project was Renwick’s BBC1 comedy drama Love Soup. Tamsin Greig had just had a baby and Verity made it a contractual obligation that she be given regular breaks to breast-feed.
She worked until just a few weeks before her death, from breast cancer, in 2007. At her humanist funeral service, which was packed with the great and the good of British showbusiness, Rock Follies writer Howard Schuman said, “Dying was a very un-Verity thing to do…”
Below: Verity Lambert in 1964 inside the Tardis with her production secretary Margaret Allen, and Doctor Who stars William Hartnell and William Russell
Drama and Delight: the Life of Verity Lambert by Richard Marson
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