Monday, 28 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Anthony Read

21st November 2015 – Anthony Read, 80

“I’ve been living as a writer one way or another since 1956, when I came out of the army, though I started writing intitially for a series called Police Surgeon* which starred Ian Hendry. I then became a writer and went to Fleet Street.”
Anthony Read, DWM168, 1990

*The show from which The Avengers originated.

English screenwriter.

““Graham Williams (phoned and) said ‘Have you ever thought about coming back to work for the BBC?’, and thinking he meant as a producer I replied ‘No, I’m happy where I am’. Then he said ‘Why not come back as a script editor?’. I refused because, unless it was a very special deal with a lot of freedom attached to it, it would look like a step down. He then sprung ‘Doctor Who’ on me. I said ‘Now that’s different. That’s a bit special’. They promised me that I’d have no hassles, and that it would only be a guest contract. Just to have ‘Doctor Who’ on the credits for a year was something I was very keen on.”
Anthony Read, DWM 1985

He was script editor of Doctor Who during the Tom Baker era, from The Sun Makers in 1977 till The Armageddon Factor in 1979. During his run on the show, he introduced the concept of specific arc seasons with The Key to Time, as well as introducing the character of Romana to the show. He also introduced young writers to the show, including Douglas Adams, who wrote The Pirate Planet, and later took over from Read as script editor.

Barely was he into the seat, when disaster nearly struck with the series finale for Season 15. The Killers of the Dark, by David Weir, was cancelled on expense grounds, leaving a 6 episode hole in the schedule. With two weeks to go before filming, Read and his producer, Graham Williams, quickly wrote up six episodes, which would be called The Invasion of Time. Credited to David Agnew – a union thing – The Invasion of Time features the Doctor seemingly betraying his home planet to alien invaders, only for it to be a plot within a plot, and to realise nearly too late everyone is a pawn in another race’s game. It features one of Tom Bakers’ finest performances in the role, and while it has the appearance in some places of a rush job, it holds up far better than stories that were allowed far more planning. Crisis averted.

It might not be a coincidence that, the maverick Adams aside, for Read’s next year in charge, he chose scripts by safe hands who could be trusted to deliver without much added drama: David Fisher, Robert Holmes, and Bob Baker and Dave Martin. David Fisher certainly enjoyed the freedom, producing two of his finest scripts, and Robert Holmes (who was a great screenwriter but past his peak by 1978) rolled back the years with the genuinely hilarious Ribos Operation.

When Read handed the reins to Douglas Adams, he wasn’t expecting to return directly to the show. However, Season 17 of Doctor Who became notorious for scripts falling through. Douglas Adams, at the same time he was having to write the radio scripts for his now massively successful Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, found himself needing to rewrite nearly every single script that season. City of Death had to be entirely rewritten from scratch, becoming Douglas Adams’s Doctor Who masterpiece in the event, and it doesn’t even have his own name on it!

“The Key to Time was my idea because I thought it would be nice to have a series that could be taken as a whole. It seemed an interesting exercise to take a number of stories and thread them through but keeping them separate and individual. Aside from anything else, it helped to keep viewers going... Douglas (Adams) hadn’t done much television but Bob Holmes saw the radio scripts for the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and passed them to me. Douglas was a wonderful discovery but totally undisciplined.”
Anthony Read, DWM168, 1990

Producer Graham Williams, in fact, wanted to cancel The Pirate Planet as he felt it was unfilmable, but Read found an ally in the director, Pennant Roberts, who agreed that the scripts were so wonderful, they would “find a way” to get them onscreen.

Script issues elsewhere meant that an Anthony Read script he had written, as a “cheapie”, had to be used as an actual story. This was The Horns of Nimon, and carried on the use of Greek mythology as a background for Doctor Who which Read had been personally interested in. The story itself was fine, though the producer Williams was not personally a fan of the idea. The production suffered due to all the money being cut to save for the big budget finale Shada... which was never finished after strike action. Read’s script didn’t need many cuts however, as Read himself had recalled how his plan for Underworld in 1978 had hit a brick wall called the BBC budget (“the technology wasn’t really up to it”), so write the scripts accordingly. Nimon isn’t particular thought of in fan circles, which is a shame, because if you add the genuine jokes in the script, dead pan played by Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, and the unplanned (but hilarious) performance of Graham Crowden, the show is a great joy. Plus, the concept of parasitic aliens who take over a planet, not with guns, but under the guise of religion, is quite creepy and one might suggest, permanently timely.

“Realising that he was not cut out for acting, he headed to Fleet Street, aiming for work in advertising copywriting while submitting scripts to television companies. He was eventually asked to join the BBC, where he became a protege of the innovative head of drama Sydney Newman, adapting stories, writing original scripts and serving as story editor for series such as Detective (1964, starring Rupert Davies), The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling (1964) and Sherlock Holmes (1965, starring Douglas Wilmer).From 1965 he script-edited Mogul (later entitled The Troubleshooters), a drama about the oil industry starring Geoffrey Keen, also producing it from 1966, and in 1972 The Lotus Eaters (featuring his friend Hendry).”
Toby Hadoke, Guardian obit

Outwith Doctor Who, he was the script editor for the 1965 series of Sherlock Holmes with Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock. He wrote for The Troubleshooters, Black Arrow, The Professionals (the one where they have to protect Ed Bishop at a peace conference) and Z-cars. His episodes of The Omega Factor included The Powers of Darkness, one of the best stories, about students who hold a séance and unleash an old vengeful spirit. One viewer, however, was unamused...

“Mary Whitehouse called Powers Of Darkness, "thoroughly evil" and "one of the most disturbing programmes I have ever seen on television" and true enough, this is the showpiece episode of the series. The Omega Factor writers go all out, starting with a student seance and hypnosis session that convinces one girl she's a 16th-century witch and ending with a satanic ritual in a church, complete with dead blackbird on the altar, and Crane battling the devil to free the girl from demonic clutches. There was a lot that was more shocking on 70s British television, but Powers Of Darkness proved to be the last gasp of the occult decade. Whether it was Mrs Whitehouse that did it or not, The Omega Factor wasn't renewed for second series. Go watch that first series and savour BBC Scotland's occult moment.”
Katrina, The Omega Factor, The Spectral Dimension 25 January 2011

“A television drama series on the paranormal was attacked yesterday by Mrs Mary Whitehouse. The Omega Factor, which ended last week, was typical of the increasing preoccupation of broadcasters with the paranormal and the occult, Mrs Whitehouse said in a letter to Sir Michael Swann, chairman of the BBC governors... she says her organisation was particularly concerned with a scene in which a young schoolboy was shown to possessed of supernatural powers and adds: “The involvement of a young person in drama dealing with the supernatural is, in our view, at best dubious, at worst dangerous."”
Iain Gray, Mrs Whitehouse Protests over Omega Factor, Herald, 21 August 1979

Now, isn’t that a seal of recommendation!

Let’s hope she didn’t watch Witching Time, an episode of Hammer House of Horror, in which Jon Finch is a depressed writer living at a desolate English country farm, who again suffers possession. With voodoo, pentagrams, attempted murder, and evil ghost seductions, it might have been too much for Whitehouse. As the debut episode for the now acclaimed series, however, it launched the whole thing with a verve and a bang.

“With nudity inside the first minute and acting that veers wildly from stiff to scenery-chewing and back again, the first episode has ‘Hammer’ written all over it and is a fine starting point for the series. Lusty witch Lucinda (Quinn) looks and sounds suitably unhinged and David’s (Finch) descent into madness is nicely played. Less impressively, we’re expected to simply accept Lucinda’s completely unexplained time travelling, Mary (Gee) is hardly a sympathetic heroine and the final, climactic action sequence is something of a letdown after such a mostly strong set-up. Still, fun to watch.”
Andrew Garvey, Hammer House of Horror episode Guide, The Spooky Isles 6 February 2013

In 1980, Read wound up co-writing the only episodes of Sapphire and Steel not to be written by PJ Hammond. Assignment Five, with two time zones merging into each other, is complex and a curious experiment in how the show might have worked if other writers had written it. It was John Wyndham and Conan Doyle for whom he became known in the 1980s.

There were three series of TV based on the novel Chocky by John Wyndham, with Anthony Read writing all the scripts involved. He also turned to a series of books and TV called The Baker Street Boys, a spin off from Sherlock Holmes about street urchins who aide the great detective.

“I was asked to dramatise and update Chocky and it was a huge success which was sold everywhere. Although John Wyndham was dead his brother and wife were still alive and they loved it. They said it was the only dramatisation of any of his books in any medium that they’d actually enjoyed. That was really very nice.”
Anthony Read, DWM168, 1990

Read mostly retired in the 1990s, but was still active in fan circles and replying to documentary questions right up to modern times. He also wrote a series of books with David Fisher. His legacy stands as one of the great and influential screen writers British TV has ever been fortunate to experience.