The 1960s Doctor Who diaries of Waris Hussein – part three
In the third and final instalment, the veteran director takes us into 1964 and the fraught production of the lost Doctor Who classic Marco Polo.
The final instalment of director Waris Hussein’s exclusive diaries begins in December 1963 when he’d returned to London after a two-week break in Russia. All four episodes of the first Doctor Who serial An Unearthly Child (sometimes known as 100,000 BC) had by then been shown on BBC television, and the series was confounding everyone’s expectations. The BBC appeared to have a hit on its hands.
Waris was preparing to direct Marco Polo – the writer John Lucarotti’s seven-part historical Doctor Who serial, referred to here as "Cathay". His journal reacquaints us with his BBC colleagues: producer Verity Lambert, script editor David Whitaker, drama boss Sydney Newman and Head of Serials Donald Wilson. What follows is an edited account, with occasional notes from Radio Times and observations from Waris 60 years later.
It picks up in late December with an entry written on the day of transmission of The Dead Planet, episode one of the very first Dalek serial. And wherever would that lead…?
- The 1963 Doctor Who diaries of Waris Hussein – part one
- The 1963 Doctor Who diaries of Waris Hussein – part two
Saturday 21st December 1963
London. Back for aeons, it seems… Things have changed on Dr Who. The show is a success and has been received well. Nobody in the corporation is quite sure whether it’s now an adult programme and varied complaints have come in about the violence in some of the episodes. Apart from that, people concerned with the programme are riding on the crest of a wave. Verity has taken all the fame and praise; newspapers ran articles on her as being the youngest producer in TV and Dr Who was her brainchild and baby. Success has gone to her head, her attitude has changed, certainly towards yours truly and I have been relegated to the second rank. Little incidents support me as I’m now indulging in self-pity.
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[Waris in 2023: (laughing) "Yes, I was going to say, talk about self-pity! Verity got all the praises. Today the press would be going on about me being a British Asian. They would have featured me everywhere."]
Casting for Cathay has not been easy because Verity has taken it upon herself to veto most of my suggestions so far. We are wallowing in various offers made to Nigel Davenport who has declined and now Peter Wyngarde who, according to his agent, is elusive for Marco. We’ve offered Tegana to Derren Nesbitt and I saw an unknown Anglo-Burmese girl Zienia Merton for Ping Cho. Yesterday Verity had a get-together with the cast – I was uninvited so it seems and the whole thing is so ridiculously infantile that I don't even want to comment on it.
[Waris in 2023: "That’s interesting about Peter Wyngarde and Nigel Davenport. I’d forgotten that. In the end I cast Mark Eden as Marco. I’d cast him before in The Shadow of Mart."]
Our budget for the epic programme is stupidly low and we’re having to watch every penny and at the moment I don’t even know whether I can afford any special music for the thing. I think I will probably have to overspend and to hell with Verity’s objections. She does it so petulantly, anyway, like a spoiled child. Come to think of it, I think that’s the reason for her being the way that she is. She’s spoiled. Also I think I began to feel uneasy about her when Miriam first arrived and Verity’s hair went back to being black. God this is becoming an insulting session. I’m being childish now. Silly of me. Especially as the joyous season is so near and everybody is sending cards and presents.
[Waris in 2023: "Miriam Worms was a friend of mine from Paris who then became a friend of Verity’s. But that’s interesting what I thought about my dear friend Verity back then. I didn’t realise we were at odds. I always remember she rescued me from oblivion years later but obviously there were a lot of temperaments going on back here. I do know that I felt very left out because she did literally get all the focus and nobody ever talked about my participation. I felt pissed off – I think quite justifiably, actually."]
[Waris’s next diary entry comes nearly one month later.]
Monday 27th January 1964
Early morning. Start rehearsals tomorrow on the Cathay episode of Who. Bad recording of it is just playing on Radio Luxembourg à la Eric Winstone. [This was a newly released version of the Doctor Who theme tune, orchestrated by big-band leader Eric Winstone.] I haven’t had time to write down anything all this time because one occurrence tops another on the work front and although I couldn't say exactly what takes precedence in the sequence of events, it all adds up to an amorphous mass of happenings – existing. Started the year with, above all, a sneaking acceptance that my contract with the BBC ends this November and I don't seem to have done anything tangible as yet.
Asked Sydney and his wife to dinner as a long shot and much to my surprise he accepted so we rustled up a group of people B and I thought might be a good match. Jo and Richard Marquand, Sinbad and Eleanor Sinclair and Alec McCowen. The evening went very well and B’s cooking turned out to be very successful.
[Waris in 2023: "So my mother B and I entertained Sydney Newman at my flat in Elm Park Gardens! I didn’t realise we had dinner. Alec was a revered actor and dear friend. Jo was a screenwriter and, many years later, Richard directed one of the first Star Wars (The Return of the Jedi) and Jagged Edge. The Sinclairs were execs with Burma Shell. All very high-end people."]
I didn’t get a chance to quiz Sydney at all which was probably just as well because I don’t think that was the purpose of the invitation. Still I think we became a bit more human in each other’s eyes. I can’t say the same about others on the "away" front. Verity is basking in a glow of golden success sparked off by the series which has proved to be a great success. I arrived from Russia [in December 1963] to find everything on the move and me somewhere in the tracks behind. I don’t think it’s even worth querying my part in the play-out. Actually the cave opener was juvenile compared to the achievements of the later episodes. [Director] Richard Martin managed last week’s very well. [Probably episode six of the first Dalek story.] We’ve filmed Marco’s fight with Tegana at Peking. A hectic exhausting week. [At Ealing Film Studios 13th–16th January.] But what about the seven weeks ahead? I daren't think about it. Tristram Cary has composed some good music for the show.
Wednesday 29th January 1964
Desperate last-minute rewrites on ep 1. God knows how I’m going to manage seven weeks of this. It will be pure hell. Another blow today. Met Peter Luke [Head of Plays] in the bar and he said that I wasn’t going to be available for a Festival production after all. Gloomed me up because of hearing it second hand again and nothing from Donald who I finally cornered in the rehearsal room and asked why. He was very avuncular, pipe at mouth, summary in his dismissal. "I’ve told Peter you are not available. I want you to do Esther Waters. (My mind jumped.) No sorry, Silas Marner. I always get the two muddled. God knows why. Constance Cox is already adapting it. I think you will do it very well." Silence from me. God the awful impersonality of it all. It’s all so transient, I could scream. A Kafka nightmare because one is so hopelessly cut down.
[Waris in 2023: "I never did either of those, but there we are. I didn’t like Donald Wilson. He was in charge of serials. I described him as a pipe-smoking captain of a ship, and it was as if I was welcomed aboard and supposed to carry on as the captain ordered. I resented the idea of being ordered about. Whereas I adored Sydney, who was in overall charge of the drama department, and Peter Luke, who ran the big BBC plays."]
[Episode three of Marco Polo was recorded Friday 14th February, after which Waris took a week’s leave from Doctor Who.]
Monday 17th February 1964
I am exhausted after three weeks of Cathay. They haven’t been bad really but could have been better, I suppose. John Crockett is [directing] episode 4 which gives me a week’s breather. The script situation is abysmal because most of the situations have been queried and last week there was a traumatic rewrite taking place with virtually new scripts evolving.
[Episode six of Marco Polo was recorded on Friday 6th March. As we see, the star William Hartnell fell ill. He had also been poorly during rehearsals for episode two. Both sudden illnesses necessitated major rewrites to reduce the Doctor’s presence.]
Saturday 7th March 1964
Next week is my last on Who and Cathay. We have had a fraught session with last-minute script changes, cast illnesses and slow narrative structures in the episodes. The four regulars have complained, Bill Hartnell got so incensed the other day that I am sure it brought about his relapse with flu which incapacitated him all through last week and we had to rehearse without him until Thursday afternoon [5th March]. To top that we had an entire scene rewrite between Tegana and Marco. Derren [Nesbitt] slowed up his performance progressively and yesterday during the actual [recording] he went off his lines completely but the scene held because of the improvisations put on by Mark [Eden] who coped with it in spite of a reinsert of dialogue because we’re underrunning.
Verity sat, cool as cucumber changing shots and not really appreciating the problem. We had a strained five minutes in the control room. Many retakes including the end of last week’s episode [the fifth] because of the knife at Susan’s throat. Apparently Sydney, on seeing it, leapt out of his chair, choleric. He is under fire from all sides because of the way BBC drama has been gunned down constantly and he doesn’t want Who to be open to any unnecessary criticisms. I’m all in sympathy with him. I think he has been most unfairly treated and have stood up for him at a number of anti-Newman sessions.
Monday 23rd March 1964
Anatomy of a TV play in production. Hastened through the last episode of Dr Who Friday week [Marco Polo: Assassin at Peking recorded on 13th March]. On Monday night [16th March] I edited Who. From 7.15 to 11.30pm!
[Waris in 2023: "I was supervising the editors. They used to slice the videotape with a razor and splice it together. Down in the bowels of TV Centre. It took so long, because some of the editors hadn’t a clue how to edit, and they needed to do it with sound and vision in conjunction."]
And that’s the last diary entry on Doctor Who. Despite the frustrations of the time vividly brought to life in these journals, Waris Hussein remains immensely proud of his association with the series. "It’s very interesting looking back at these diaries because neither Verity nor I knew what we had in our hands or what we were doing with Doctor Who. We had no idea of the quality of the show. I feel a sense of achievement. I’m grateful for the fact that Doctor Who was my jumping-up point at the BBC. It helped me to get into further television drama of the kind that I ended up doing, like A Passage to India  and St Joan ."
Waris and Verity Lambert went on to work together many more times and, by the end of the 1960s, had become firm friends. "I respected her enormously and now realise Verity was a vulnerable person. We were too similar. You see she was a Sagittarian, too. She saw me. She and I understood each other implicitly. It’s funny when one gets instincts about people. We were both self-orientated and needed reassurance. We became close friends, worked together and went on holidays together."
An Unearthly Child and Marco Polo have long been revered as television classics, and Waris laments the BBC’s tape-wiping policy of long ago, which means that no copies of the latter story are known to exist. "I would so love to be able to watch Marco Polo now. I am very proud of what we achieved all those years ago."
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