“Hello,” I replied, quickly, before the hotel receptionist on the other end hung up, “could I speak to John Nathan-Turner please.”
There was a click and a burr, “Putting you through…” and then another “Hello.” A different voice this time, guarded, distant and dry. Aloof.
It was 1985, I was 21, and that was the first time I spoke with JNT, then producer of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. As a freelance feature writer at the time, working for the likes of Marvel’s Doctor Who Magazine, our paths were destined to cross numerous times over the next few years, but on that first occasion we met because John had agreed to appear as a guest at The Time-Lord and The Thistle, a fan event I’d co-organised.
He was in Edinburgh to for the Book Festival at time and had generously agreed to come along for the afternoon. Resplendent in his trademark Hawaiian shirt he proved a great raconteur with tales of Seville prostitutes high on his agenda – it wasn’t long after the screening of The Two Doctors, which he had shot there.
Always one to go on gut instinct, my first impressions were of a funny, but by turns charming, arrogant, calculating and vulnerable man. “Damaged,” I thought. That same year he came to see a musical I was appearing in at the Edinburgh Fringe. He said he loved it… I heard later he fell asleep half way through. He took some of us for drinks afterwards. He behaved, although he did offer the spare bed in his hotel room to one of the party who had a long journey home. Even then we were aware of his reputation.
My first impressions of John never changed, he was driven by his mood and I never found him easy. There was a coldness about him. The last time we met was in 1991/2 at the Paisley Arts Centre. I was sitting in a dressing room, chatting with Tom Baker. Tom was enjoying a refreshment and in particularly candid mode. As we talked he shared his opinions on fandom, they were not flattering, before turning his attention to the show itself.
It was as he began to regale me with tales of his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, that John re-entered the room. He wasn’t happy and as Tom’s opinions became more and more brutal, so John’s gesticulations for me to leave grew more and more frantic. Tom was having none of it. So I stayed. John, furious, stormed off threatening, “You’ll never do another interview about Doctor Who!”
As it happen, I did, many of them, but that was the last time John and I ever spoke.
By a strange quirk of fate, I only met Gary Downie once, a year or so later at a 30th anniversary fan event John had organised. Again I was covering it for DWM. Gary made me laugh. The archetypal bitchy queen, he couldn’t help himself. Janet Fielding was my interview subject, spiky and blunt, she had just made a crack about wobbly sets as we returned to the melee of fans waiting in the foyer, and Gary was not happy.
Mincing down the corridor towards us, clipboard in hand, he loomed large. He was wearing Cuban heels, if I recall correctly, which made his approach all the more comical. “Bitch! My sets never wobbled!” he declared with just a touch too much venom.
Bizarrely, it was two years before my first encounter with John, that I met Richard Marson. Wearing my actors hat, I was appearing in Recall UNIT, Richard Franklin’s spin-off Mike Yates play, which ran at the 1984 Edinburgh Fringe. Marson was covering it for DWM.
It was reading his new book, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (available http://www.miwkpublishing.com) that triggered these, and more, memories of the man.
Taking in all 380 pages over two nights, The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is an immersive read. Marson starts by exploring the circumstances that made John the person he became, before giving a unique insight (he followed the same career path with Blue Peter) into the job that made him famous, or infamous, depending on which side of the fence you sat.
Marson himself understands the value of watching from the fringes, only participating in the story by default, which allows him to present a detached, yet detailed view of the larger picture. Events, and more importantly people, are seldom one thing or the other, after all. The complexity and chemistry of relationships is never simple, Marson illustrates this beautifully with contradicting quotes from those who loved and loathed John.
At a deeper level, however, Marson’s book is a rare and damning insight into the pursuit of power and the machinations of the BBC. It’s all the more valuable for it. His ability to get people of position to speak on the record in such a staggeringly candid terms is quite remarkable and a testament to his skills as an interviewer.
Not everyone shows themselves in a good light.
Equally, for anyone who was around Doctor Who fandom in the 1980s, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is a must read, if only to be reacquainted with many of the bizarre and downright hilarious characters who populated that world; the head of the BBC phoning a local library to break news of the series’ return to the head of the DWAS, had me in tears.
Marson meanwhile, walks a fine line as he charts the life of JNT, balancing opinions throughout. He uncovers the person, rather than the figure-head John became. Again it’s not always pretty, yet the picture he paints is of a insecure and ultimately tragic life. John’s need to be loved, indeed adored, is sad, as is his compulsion to seek solace through a hedonistic life-style.
Of course, many of the stories Marson explores have been ‘whispers’ for decades now. Some are elaborated on nicely, others denied with such off the cuff disregard that you wonder…
That said, reading this book certainly left me more sympathetic to the John I knew vaguely as a person. Less so to the John I knew as a producer. But then Doctor Who is JUST a TV show and as such a tiny part of the larger picture that made John Nathan-Turner the person he was. A point worth remembering perhaps.