I am a child of the 1970s. As Spearhead From Space was transmitted in January 1970 I was an over excited seven year old. The name of producer Barry Letts will always warmly remind me of the golden period from 1970 to 1975 when Doctor Who was synonymous with a happy, imaginative childhood. Not only did he enshrine the programme within the affections of the public, rescuing it from the doldrums of the late 1960s, but he also was a man who inspired actors and technicians alike to push the envelope in the development of the programme. Much as we deride the early use of CSO in the programme Barry's encouragement in the use of new production methods and technologies at the time should be applauded and recognised.
Barry Leopold Letts, born in Leicester in 1925, began his acting career in theatre and met his wife, Muriel Pears, when they both had small parts in the comedy A Boy, A Girl And A Bike. The memoir only briefly touches on his early career in films and television series, including The Cruel Sea and The Avengers, but he does give some insights into the heady days of 'live' television and the struggle to develop a writing career which eventually grew out of scripting storylines for the soap opera The Newcomers. But writing and acting were never his first loves and once he'd completed the BBC’s in-house directors course he first worked on Doctor Who in 1967 on The Enemy of the World. From 1970 to 1975 he was the show's producer.
Who And Me, an expanded version of the original audio book, is the first volume (and now alas the only volume) of his memoirs. It's a breezy read and captures Letts conversational style very well as he moves deftly from one subject to another, taking asides on many occasions before returning to the matter at hand. This begins with his early career as an actor and writer and how he eventually found himself working at the BBC as producer of Doctor Who. The book then covers his first two seasons as producer. Along the way he offers amusing anecdotes about his working life, what it was like at the BBC in the 1970s and the steep learning curve he took as a producer and writer. Whilst he's discreet, clearly not wanting the memoir to turn into a kiss and tell volume, he's quite candid about fellow actors, writers and colleagues. Was Pertwee a prima-dona? Well, yes he was a bit, but Letts, being an actor and aware of the insecurities inherent in the profession, could handle him with aplomb.
There are some great anecdotes about Troughton and Pertwee (the very moving story of how a young Jon never managed to get his own father's approval of his acting career), how they cast Katy Manning as Jo Grant (Rula Lenska was up for the role) and he's the first to admit the great failings of the CSO work in The Green Death and the puppet creatures in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. There's a wonderful recall of a Eureka type moment at the BBC when after a scenery building crisis on Doctor Who And The Silurians Letts suggests, to great relief, a better way of scheduling the production of the show. It's clear that in Terrance Dicks he also found the ideal producing partnership with a script editor who felt the same about the changes needed to improve the series back in 1970. Their working relationship was obviously one he cherished. Scattered amongst the behind the scenes chatter are ruminations on his decision to become a Buddhist, a lot of mind boggling contemplation and inner perceptions about time paradoxes and history.
Letts' informal and affectionate style covers the various production crises and cock ups on Colony In Space (BBC boss Ronnie Marsh vetoing Susan Jameson as a whip cracking, leather clad villain), Claws Of Axos (the inclement weather conditions on location in Dungeness that turned Manning's legs purple) and how Bob Sloman came on board to write The Daemons. Did you know that Terrance Dicks almost cut the Brig's 'five rounds rapid' line? What comes through the stories is a picture of a true gentleman learning on the job, as it were, but sensitive to other actors, writers and directors and with a vision for the programmes he was producing, particularly with Doctor Who.
Ironically, Letts describes a pre-Birt BBC where islands of creativity were more or less left to their own devices to make programmes they clearly cared about and he was obviously dismayed at what happened when Birt's regime change hit the corporation. It's clear from this memoir that the modest and self-depracating Barry Letts captured in these pages most definitely belongs to that era of television that rings proudly with the names of Hugh Carleton Green, Sydney Newman, Shaun Sutton, Innes Lloyd, Graeme MacDonald and many others. Whilst it confirms his status as one of the best producers Doctor Who ever had, this memoir is bittersweet in that we'll now not get his response to the 'but that's another story' he often uses in the quickfire narrative.
Thanks for making my Doctor Who, Barry Letts.
Who And Me: The Memoir Of A Doctor Who Producer - Barry Letts (Published November 9th, 2009 - Publisher Fantom Films - ISBN978-1-906263-44-7)
Fantom Films website