Crisis on live TV
On the 30th November 1958, the latest episode of Armchair Theatre began its broadcast on ITV. Featuring a different TV play each week, the series had become a firm fixture of Sunday night television, particularly since Canadian producer Sydney Newman had taken over production in 1956. Newman, a man always looking to push the boundaries of television, had shifted Armchair away from classical adaptations towards new works, often by younger writers. That night’s broadcast was no exception. It was The Underground, written by James Forsyth and starring Donald Houston and Gareth Jones, a play which told the story of a group of survivors who had found shelter in the London Underground after a nuclear apocalypse.
As was often the case with TV at the time, Armchair was not recorded. It was broadcast live. This could sometimes prove taxing for both cast and crew but all seemed to be going to plan that night until about half way through. Then disaster struck.
“We saw him fall”
“During transmission, a little group of us was talking on camera while awaiting the arrival of Gareth Jones’ character,” the actor Peter Bowles, who was in the cast, later recalled, “We could see him coming up towards us, but we saw him fall. We had no idea what had happened, but he certainly wasn’t coming our way.”
Finding themselves suddenly Jones-less, the cast improvised their way through the scene. Meanwhile off camera, at just 33, Gareth Jones died of a fatal heart attack.
“Shoot it like a football match”
The scene ended and ITV cut to an advert break, granting Newman and his small production a few precious minutes to deal with perhaps the worst crisis a live broadcast could ever face — the death of a lead actor mid-show.
“Shoot it like a football match!” Newman told the director, fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff. Kotcheff knew what Newman meant: the actors should improvise and the writer rewrite the script on the fly, while the cameras on the floor attempted to follow the action.
This was a hard format to pull off, particularly with the technology at the time. It required quick thinking and decisions from the production gallery and steely nerves on the part of the director. Kotcheff had done it before but he couldn’t do it now, because the production had no on-set writer. That left Kotcheff as the only one capable of rewriting the script to remove Jones’ character, leaving him no time to take control himself.
Instead, Kotcheff had no choice but to place the responsibility for running the production squarely on the shoulders of his inexperienced twenty-three year old production assistant.
Luckily for both Newman and Kotcheff, that production assistant was Verity Lambert. As would soon become her trademark, the responsibility was shouldered, the challenge risen to, and The Underground completed.
There are few people who can claim to have left as indelible a print on British television as Verity Lambert. In a career that would last over forty-five years she would play a critical role in bringing a wealth of classic British serials to the screen, and one truly global phenomenon — Doctor Who.
The daughter of a London accountant, Verity entered the world of television via one of the few routes available to women at the time, or at least to those for whom acting held no interest — secretarial work. Blessed with a good education and eighteen months of secretarial school, she was able to find work in the press office at Grenada TV in 1956. Shortly after that, she moved on to become a shorthand typist at ABC. Further secretarial moves soon followed, as Lambert tried to engineer a move away from administration towards production. Her break finally came in 1958 with that appointment as a production assistant on Armchair Theatre.
An unbreakable ceiling
It is here that Lambert’s story may have ended. British television at the time was very much an “old boy’s network” and Verity was emphatically not an “old boy.” Like many other women hoping to find a career in television she faced significant resistance to her quest for advancement, despite her conspicuous ability. By 1961, despite leaving and rejoining ABC, she was still working as a production assistant; her requests to direct were rebuffed with the explanation that there were enough women directors within television already. Facing what appeared to be an unbreakable glass ceiling, Verity reluctantly began plans to abandon the world of television completely.
Verity’s luck, however, was finally about to change. In London the BBC was undergoing something of a revolution. Since the arrival on the scene of ITV, the national broadcaster had been on a mission to find a new balance between public interest broadcasting and populism. To help it achieve this it headhunted Sydney Newman from ABC and made him Head of Drama in December 1962. Newman arrived with both a willingness to shake up the established order and a number of ideas, one of which was for a new children’s programme which would mix education with adventure. By early 1963 this idea had been given form: Doctor Who.
Lambert was not Newman’s first choice to produce Doctor Who. Newman offered it to several producers already on the BBC’s payroll but to a man (and they were all men) they turned it down. In truth, Newman was one of the few people who thought the series was a good idea. He soon realised that he would not only need to bring in some new blood, but also someone who wouldn’t be fazed by the task of delivering a new type of programme and would be prepared to fight to bring it to screen. That was when Newman remembered Verity.
“I remembered Verity as being bright and, to use the phrase, full of piss and vinegar!” Newman told Doctor Who Magazine in 1993. “She was gutsy and she used to fight and argue with me, even though she was not at a very high level as a production assistant.”
Newman called Verity and asked her what she knew about children. “Absolutely nothing,” she replied, with her usual honesty. He hired her anyway.
Creating the Doctor
Though she neither wrote nor directed it, Verity Lambert’s role in the creation of Doctor Who is impossible to overstate. Those first months of production soon proved that Newman’s instincts were correct; the series found little backing within the BBC, and Verity was forced to fight to bring it to screen. Indeed fighting to bring it in on time, on budget and in line with Newman’s vision almost proved too tough a goal to complete. Newman was famously so disappointed with the version of An Unearthly Child — the show’s first episode — presented to him in September 1963 that he ordered Lambert and director Waris Hussein to reshoot it (Hussein later recalled that, over dinner, Newman confessed that he’d come very close to firing them both). Luckily, their second attempt was much more to his liking, and Doctor Who finally made its screen debut on 23rd November 1963.
With Doctor Who, Lambert’s achievement was not just in getting the series to screen, but in leading it through its infancy. Between 1963 and 1965 she produced eighty-six episodes and shepherded it through a difficult period in which it struggled to find both its character and its tone. She played a crucial role in moving it away from its educational roots into a more solidly dramatic series, and worked hard to support both the cast and writers through what was always a difficult and stressful production. She also battled to keep production values high, despite the low budget, insisting that the show would be judged as much on quality of its effects and scenery as it would be on its scripts. Indeed “Verity Lambert Syndrome” became something of an in-joke within the BBC, as a way of describing productions requiring a large number of props and sets. By the time she produced her last episode (the incredible stand-alone Mission to the Unknown) Lambert had helped to define both the Doctor and the universe he inhabited in a way that is still recognisable over fifty years later.
A beginning, not an end
Doctor Who, however, marked the beginning of Verity’s career, not the end. By 1965 she was keen to find a new challenge, and had her eye on producing a new series at the BBC. Newman was happy to oblige, offering her the chance to helm Adam Adamant Lives!, a new comedy adventure he had been developing with Tony Williamson. Although all involved — including Lambert — would later deny it, Adamant, which featured a revived Victorian adventurer solving crimes in swinging sixties London, seemed to be an attempt to cash in on the success of The Avengers. The show’s own success was limited, running for 29 episodes before cancellation in 1967.
Between 1967 and 1974 Lambert continued to build a reputation as a successful television producer though and, perhaps more importantly, one who could shepherd potentially tricky shows through production. Leaving “Auntie” in 1969 to go freelance she produced Budgie and Between the Wars for LWT. She then worked once more with the BBC to bring their six part suffragette drama Shoulder to Shoulder to the screen.
Taking on Thames
In 1974, with her star riding high, Verity was appointed Head of Drama at Thames Television. Thames and the other independents were struggling to emulate the drama revolution that had been kicked off by her mentor Sydney Newman ten years earlier at the BBC. Now they turned to Newman’s protégé in the hope that she could help them restore the balance. In her time in charge at Thames (and later as Chief Executive of their Euston Films subsidiary), Lambert proved that she was an inspired choice for the role, demonstrating the same boldness and talent for commissioning as her mentor.
Popular hits like The Sweeney, Minder and Rumpole of the Bailey all happened on Verity’s watch. Meanwhile series like Quatermass, Widows, The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies and the now-frequently-overlooked political masterpiece Bill Brand showed that Lambert believed you could push the boundaries of drama and still be successful. The ratings, and flow of BAFTAs to Thames, seemed to prove she was right.
“I’m going to kill her”
By the eighties Lambert was looking to move on again, and a brief period at Thorn EMI followed. Television though was where her real talent lay, and by 1985 she was in charge of her own independent television company, Cinema Verity, and looking to return to small screen work.
Proving once more that she could read the desires and trends of TV audiences May to December and So Haunt Me both followed for the BBC in the late eighties and early nineties. Once again though, she was not afraid to push bolder projects; Bill Brand may be largely be forgotten, but another of Lambert’s political dramas most certainly isn’t — the legendary version of Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, produced for Channel 4. Perhaps fittingly, given the dark and brutal nature of the drama, the production was suitably fraught. Bleasdale reacted badly to Lambert’s hands-on approach, particularly after she presented him with an extensive list of script edits.
“All week he sat glaring at me, getting redder and redder in the face,” she later recalled in an interview with the Guardian. “Later he rang Peter Ansorge at Channel 4 in the middle of the night, saying, ‘I’m going to kill her.’ He told me later he’d really meant it.”
The nineties also brought that rarest of televisual experiences — a Lambert failure in the form of the infamous soap opera Eldorado. A rare mis-step, it is perhaps best treated as evidence of just how hard it can be to produce boundary-pushing television, and therefore in its own way something that highlights just how impressive Lambert’s record was overall. Both she and Cinema Verity would soon bounce back though, most notably introducing a whole new generation of television viewers to her ability to craft out a quirky prime-time drama with Jonathan Creek.
A final attempt to save the Doctor
Verity Lambert passed away from cancer on the 22nd November 2007, almost exactly 44 years to the day since the first ever broadcast of Doctor Who. She will forever remain a key part of its history, just as it remains an important part of hers.
She certainly displaying an affection for both the show and its characters that endured long after her on tenure as producer had finished. In the early nineties she talked briefly with the BBC about bringing the series back as a Cinema Verity production, claiming she could persuade Peter Cook to take the lead role. Cook’s death though, and the ongoing negotiations over a US/BBC partnership that would eventually result in the 8th Doctor’s single TV movie outing, meant that it was not to be.
When Doctor Who finally returned to the BBC under the guidance of Russell T. Davies, however, she was one of the first to profess her delight, commenting that she felt the new series captured perfectly the spirt of the original. She expressed particular delight at Billie Piper’s turn as Rose; both actress and character, she said, felt “real.”
In that statement lies a hint at the main reason why Verity Lambert is a true legend of British TV. Heresy though it may sound to some, Doctor Who was a great achievement, but it was not her greatest.
Verity’s greatest achievement was that she carved out a career based entirely on her talent at a time when television was actively set up to prevent women like her from doing exactly that. This meant not only working in an environment that must have been, at times, overwhelmingly chauvinistic, but also putting up with repeated suggestions — sometimes to her face — that, as a young and successful woman, she must have “slept her way to the top.”
That she not only endured this, but conquered it, is an enormous testament to her character and her talent. Verity Lambert broke down boundaries and made over forty years’ worth of excellent television in the process.
When Verity died, obituaries appeared in all of the major papers, and almost universally they lamented the passing of one of television’s greatest producers. Not one of its greatest female producers, just one of its greatest. It was no more than she deserved but, even today, the omission of that qualifier is something all too rarely given.
Verity lived, and died, as a qualifier-less master of her art. She changed British TV forever.