An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV LegendBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 November 2013 - Reported by Anthony Weight
An Absolute Knock-Out
The twenty-eighth episode in our series telling the story of the creation of Doctor Who, from conception to broadcast.

By early November, the production of Doctor Who was well under way. The programme's début was locked in for Saturday 23rd November, and most of the first serial was now complete - the third episode, "The Forest of Fear", had been recorded on Friday the 1st, and the fourth and final epsiode was now being rehearsed ahead of its recording on Friday the 8th. Pre-production had begun for the second serial, by Terry Nation, with some pre-filming for the story already having taken place at Ealing. With the lengthy and at times troubled gestation period for the show coming to an end, thoughts could at last turn towards giving Doctor Who the strongest possible launch in terms of press and publicity.

One of the best ways for the BBC to promote its programmes in the 1960s was through its own weekly listings magazine, the Radio Times. The magazine was almost as old as the BBC itself, having been launched in 1923, just one year after the BBC began transmissions. In 1963 it turned forty, and was already something of a national institution. Until the deregulation of the TV and radio listings industry in the early 1990s, it was the only place where readers could find detailed information about all of the BBC's programmes for the full week ahead. It was therefore one of the UK's best-selling magazines, most of the population had at least a passing familiarity with it, and it was both a valuable source of revenue for the corporation (unlike on television or radio, the BBC could sell advertising in the pages of the Radio Times) and a tremendous source of publicity, of immense value in promoting programmes.

Gaining a Radio Times cover feature was a particularly prestigious event for any programme, and it was very much hoped by the Doctor Who production team that the new show would be on the front cover for the edition covering 23-29 November, which would hit newsstands on Thursday 21st. Indeed, the Radio Times had for a while actively planned to mark the first episode of Doctor Who with a front cover feature, but by early November these plans had changed. One of the reasons for this was that Douglas Williams, the magazine's editor at the time, believed that the man ultimately in charge of all BBC Television, Kenneth Adam, had a lack of faith in the show's prospects for success.

On Tuesday 5 November 1963, exactly fifty years ago today, word of the Radio Times's change of heart regarding a cover feature for Doctor Who had reached one of those most closely involved in the creation of the series - the drama department's Head of Serials, Donald Wilson. Wilson had been one of the staunchest supporters of Doctor Who all through its development, and had been intimately involved in the creation of the series right from the beginning - it was in his previous capacity as Head of the Script Department that he had been asked, back in the spring of 1962, for a report into the possibility of the BBC producing a new science-fiction series, a report to which the very start of what would become Doctor Who can be traced.

Wilson had defended the still-to-be-broadcast show against attacks and criticism from various levels and departments of the BBC, and exactly fifty years ago today he wrote a memo to Williams at the Radio Times, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was wrong to perceive a lack of faith in Doctor Who, and that in his opinion something rather special was about to be unleashed upon the audience. Wilson's words to the editor contained great prescience:

I was unhappy to hear to-day that the proposal to give Dr. Who the front page of the Radio Times had now been abandoned. It was particularly distressing to hear that one reason given was lack of confidence in the programme at Controller [Kenneth Adam's] level. I assure you that this does not exist and if you have a word with [Adam] I know he will express enthusiasm.

I myself believe that we have an absolute knock-out in this show and that there will be no question but that it will run and run.

I would be most grateful, if it is not too late, for the decision against it to be reversed, and that will help me to get this show off to a good start.

Unfortunately however, Williams would not be swayed, and Doctor Who did not eventually feature as the cover story of the 23-29 November edition of the Radio Times. As the name of the magazine implies, when it was originally launched it carried only radio listings, and even by 1963 it was still not at all uncommon for the magazine to feature a popular radio programme on the cover in preference to a TV show. In this case, the magazine chose to focus on the return of the popular radio comedy series Beyond Our Ken on the BBC Light Programme (now BBC Radio 2) on Sunday 24th November, with a cover photograph of the show's star, the comedian Kenneth Horne.

However, Doctor Who did not entirely miss out. The previous week's edition, covering 16-22 November, would contain a tease ahead to Doctor Who, and the 23-29 November edition did at least mention the series on the cover, with a feature on the new programme inside. It would not be until the start of Marco Polo in February 1964, though, that Doctor Who gained its first cover feature on the magazine - and even this caused some controversy, as it only featured William Hartnell and some of the guest cast, rather than all four of the series regulars.

The Radio Times would go on to be a strong supporter of Doctor Who, featuring the show regularly on the cover over the following fifty years and also producing special editions dedicated to the programme and, latterly, a section of its own website devoted to the show. In July 2013, the magazine at last made amends for the decision taken back in 1963, by producing a specially mocked-up version of what a Doctor Who-focused cover of the 23-29 November 1963 edition might have looked like, with Hartnell on the front page.

As for Donald Wilson, Doctor Who remained in his charge as Head of Serials until 1965, when he stood down from the role to concentrate on a long-held ambition to adapt The Forsyte Saga for television - an adaptation that was to garner both him and the BBC huge acclaim. He lived until 2002, not seeing the return of Doctor Who to prominence, but more than long enough to have known that he had been entirely justified in his words of fifty years ago today - the show was an absolute knock-out, and it had been destined to run and run.

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SOURCES: The Handbook: The First Doctor – The William Hartnell Years: 1963-1966, David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker (Doctor Who Books, 1994); Radio Times - Why did the very first Doctor Who miss making the front cover of Radio Times?
Compiled by:
Paul Hayes

FILTER: - The Story of Doctor Who