Barry Letts, 1925-2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009 by TJ Worthington
Like all major figures involved with Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts seemed to have his own personal anecdote about working on the show, one which got endlessly trotted out to the benign bemusement of fans.
In his case, it was a bizarre story about recieving a letter containing a poem advising him of the proper pronounciation of ‘chitinous’. Yet that, and several other similarly prominent anecdotes about eyepatches and ‘Katy’s fella’, belied the fact he also had a great many fascinating stories to tell about the years he spent working on a fascinating programme, many of them relating to a pivotal moment in television history.
Originally an actor, Letts took a directing course in 1967, and one of his first professional engagements in this capacity was the Doctor Who story ‘The Enemy Of The World’. Two years later, he was offered the job of producer on the show, then in the throes of one of its many brushes with cancellation. Though it was in fact outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin who both devised a new format ( The Doctor attached to a military unit and battling Earthbound threats in the hope of countering the ratings slump) and had cast Jon Pertwee in the title role, it was Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks who made it into such a huge success, even despite the additional headaches caused by the move to colour production.
And, if the various tales of strobing trousers and misjudging model sizes are anything to go by, they were headaches indeed.
The story of Letts’ hugely successful five-year stint on Doctor Who has been endlessly told elsewhere; suffice it to say that, with the arguable exception of the early ’60s Dalekmania and the slightly later flirtation with Gothic Horror, the exploits of The Third Doctor, The Master (a character created by Letts and Dicks), UNIT and gaudy alien races like the Axons – famously forming part of a legendarily solid block of BBC scheduling – are the reason why Doctor Who has long been associated with Saturday evening thrills.
His skills as a producer, however, went way beyond creating ratings-grabbing edge-of-the-seat excitement; many stories had thought-provoking environmental themes, influenced by his own beliefs, and he was always ready to accept responsibility if it was thought the show had gone a little too far for younger viewers. He was also adept at creating headline-grabbing showpieces – such as negotiating the rights to use the Daleks after a five year absence, and coming up with the idea of combining all three Doctors to date for an anniversary special – without them ever seeming forced or contrived.
Most notably, all of these positives combined to impressive effect on ‘The Daemons’, a fondly-remembered tale that a far-sighted Letts specifically asked the BBC VT department not to erase; a plea, needless to say, that fell on unlistening ears.
In the early ’80s, he was again called on to oversee a reinvention of the show in the face of declining ratings, acting as Executive Producer while his younger counterpart John Nathan-Turner instigated an initially highly successful overhaul of the series as “intelligent sci-fi”. Right across his work on Doctor Who, it’s clear that Letts had a flair for combining action and imagination, which is perhaps why, by his own admission, his extra-curricular attempt at a realistic adult-orientated futuristic drama Moonbase 3 didn’t work quite so well.
After leaving Doctor Who, this flair was again exploited to its full potential as he spent over a decade at the helm – again with Terrance Dicks – of the BBC’s ‘Sunday Classics’ serials. Though seldom mentioned anywhere these days, it’s surprising how well-remembered many of these productions are, from countless Dickens and HG Wells adaptations to the award-winning Beau Geste, an infamous attempt at casting Tom Baker as Sherlock Holmes for The Hound of The Baskervilles, and a notorious re-imagining of Pinocchio with macabre overtones and a grotesque shrieking puppet interacting with live humans.
Though these productions were subject to much the same restrictions as Doctor Who, Letts would often use the limitations of studio space and primitive special effects as an advantage, taking the opportunity to create a deliberately unreal atmosphere or or stuffily claustrophobic historical world.
Though semi-retired by the late ’80s, Letts still occasionally undertook directing work (including a stint on EastEnders) and kept up his professional association with Doctor Who. The requests to give interviews and pen reminiscences gradually gave way to invitations to write new material, especially after the television show was cancelled in 1989, and Letts went on to write several radio plays and spin-off novels. While these latterday efforts didn’t always meet with a positive response, they were still a then-rare example of straightforward storytelling at a time dominated by fans turned writers gleefully breaking taboos.
That he remained a well-regarded figure is testament to the fact he put a great deal of care and attention into his work on what could easily have been just another assignment. This was later repaid by similar attention from fans who appreciated his efforts; it’s rumoured he was recording DVD commentaries for old stories right up until weeks before his death. Quite simply he understood how to make an ambitious yet accessible family show more than most, and while that letter writer presumably had their reasons for wanting to ensure obscure scientific terms weren’t mispronounced in front of Saturday evening viewers, they were one of the few people who ever felt the need to correct him.