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

Monday, 14 May 2012 - Reported by John Bowman
Thanks and No Thanks

The third in our occasional series marking the 50th anniversary of events leading to the creation of a true TV legend.
The initial seed had been sown with the suggestion by Eric Maschwitz, Assistant and Adviser to the Controller of Programmes, that the literary merits of science fiction be looked into for short, single adaptations.

BBC Head of Script Department Donald Wilson, who had set up a Survey Group to keep an eye on other media and to look for ideas that the department could develop for television, gave this task to drama script editors Donald Bull and Alice Frick. They reported back that there was just a small number of suitable works and writers but were unable to recommend any particular stories.

Bull and Frick also stated that any adaptations should be written by TV dramatists and not SF writers. One copy of the report was sent to Wilson, to be duplicated and circulated with the next minutes for the Survey Group, and another was sent to Maschwitz.

On 14th May 1962 - exactly 50 years ago today - a memo was sent to Maschwitz by Donald Baverstock, the Assistant Controller of Programmes for BBC TV, thanking him for the Survey Group report, which he had seen. Baverstock wrote:
You describe it as interesting and intelligent. I would go further and say that it seems to me exactly the kind of hard thinking over a whole vein of dramatic material that is most useful to us.

I gather that Donald Bull and Alice Frick were responsible for it and I hope HSDTel will thank them.
"HSDTel" stood for "Head of Script Department, Television", ie, Donald Wilson. The next day - 15th May 1962 - Maschwitz sent Baverstock's memo to Wilson, including with it a hand-written note expressing his own "admiring thanks".
Just days later, Frick and her colleague John Braybon, pictured right, were tasked with putting together another report specifying sci-fi stories that would suit being adapted for television. This follow-up would be presented to Wilson on 25th July 1962.

Earlier in the month, on 1st May 1962, Bull had sent a letter to SF author John Christopher's agent, Jean LeRoy, to express his gratitude for the stories by Christopher that she had sent him. He said there were "considerable immediate opportunities . . . for using John Christopher's specialised knowledge and talent in conjunction with our future schemes, possibly in collaboration with a skilled TV dramatist" but he also stated that TV audiences were generally unready yet for "the more fanciful flights of SF" as displayed in such stories as Christopher's Christmas Roses.

In the meantime, rival channel ITV was preparing to broadcast the sci-fi anthology series Out of this World - the first of its kind on British TV and a programme greenlit by ABC drama supervisor and sci-fi fan Sydney Newman, who was working out his notice at the commercial network before joining the BBC as its Head of Drama later in the year. This 13-part series would start airing on 30th June 1962.

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SOURCES: The Handbook (Howe, Walker, Stammers; 2005)

FILTER: - The Story of Doctor Who