Saturday, 1 September 2012

My Novels: 1963

“So life was never better than,
In nineteen sixty-three,
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban,
And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Philip Larkin ‘Annus Mirabilis’

(I’d forgotten this, but my diary for 2005 reminds me that I did briefly consider calling it November Spawned a Monster, after the Morrissey song... Fortunately, good sense prevailed!)

Word count:

(Again, too long, but at least it didn’t feel as dreary as Tales Willingly Told)

February to July 2005

A little self-indulgent blurb I wrote at the time...

Toby joined the BBC because he thought he could change the world.

Gillian joined the BBC because she thought she could escape her future.

Neither of them ended up getting quite what they bargained for.

It is the London of 1963, before the decade started to swing. Toby is stuck writing episodes of a Sunday afternoon serial in a cold caravan in the Television Centre car park. Gillian is facing up to a working life spent doing little more than typing out production budgets on the Corporation’s secretarial staff. Both feel very far away from the creation of the black and white images keeping a captive audience of millions transfixed on one of only two television channels.

But when they become caught up in the complex and bizarre internal wrangling surrounding the creation of a new drama series, they are drawn towards both each other and an association with a little bit of television history.

From the least promising of beginnings, a little bit of magic is about to happen – providing nobody calls the whole thing off first…

 The original leading cast of Doctor Who and producer Verity Lambert (centre) celebrate the show's first anniversary in 1964.

Gillian was bored.

The people at the other tables seemed to be having such a better time than she was – couples enjoying romantic dinners, groups of friends laughing and joking together. Even the occasional old, fat regular diner eating alone amongst the purple curtains and pure white tablecloths seemed to be content. Gillian, though, had no lover or boyfriend to while away the time with. All she had was a pen, a notepad and an increasingly tipsy selection of men she worked with and for.

The wine was good, there was no denying that, and the food thus far had been excellent. Dessert was on its way and the conversation was flowing, but still nothing useful seemed to have been achieved. She found herself distracted by the warm smoothness of the dark brown wood the restaurant seemed to be entirely furnished and decorated in, or glancing at the vibrant late night street outside as the cars dashed past.

It was an expensive setting, far more expensive than her wage would ever normally have allowed her, but she may as well have been in a drab boardroom anywhere within Television Centre.

What, she wondered to herself, am I doing here…?

Dara O Briain has a joke about being an atheist, yet still somehow culturally Catholic. “You could run away and join the Taliban,” he says, “and you would merely be regarded as a very bad Catholic.”

It’s like that for Doctor Who fans. You may, perhaps, come to a stage where you think you’ve put such childish things behind you (although I never have), but you cannot ever completely leave it behind. It’s culturally ingrained within you, programmed from childhood, and no matter how mature and sophisticated you think you may have become, it’s there. You’re not like other people. You do not think like them. If you should see a mention of the Georgian State Dancers in the culture section of the broadsheet newspaper of your choice, then you’re not put in mind of Soviet-era artistic displays; you’re thinking of Mark III Travel Machines.

I love Doctor Who. I always have done, and I always will. In many ways, it’s part of the reason I write – you only have to look at the people who have ended up running the show since its revival to see that Doctor Who inspires creativity. I’m also, as I have mentioned on this blog recently, fascinated by the history of broadcasting. It’s a general trait of Doctor Who fans to be as interested in the history and production of the show itself, the mechanics and stories of how it was made, as we are by the fictional stories told on-screen. It’s why Doctor Who is quite possibly the best-researched and most written-about series in the history of television, and why it will in decades and possibly even centuries to come be the case study for how British television drama was made.

One of the many, many excellent books to have been written about the series down the years is The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker. The final section of this book comprises of a wonderfully-constructed narrative of the genesis of the series and its early years, from Eric Maschwitz’s first suggestion of a science-fiction series in the spring of 1962 through to the departure of William Hartnell in October 1966. It’s all put together from quotes from memos, letters, format documents, etc, and it tells a narrative of the difficult beginnings of the series.

When I first started thinking about writing a novel set around a momentous event in television history, somewhere in 2004, it wasn’t actually Doctor Who that initially came to mind. That year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC’s famous Kneale and Cartier adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I did have a few tentative ideas about writing a novel set around the production and broadcast of that, to be called 1954.

However, it got swept away when the idea of writing a novel around Doctor Who’s beginnings came to me instead. It was a very exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. The return of the show had been announced in September 2003, production began in the summer of 2004 ahead of the first broadcast in March 2005, and suddenly all the things we’d waited such a long time for were actually happening. So out went 1954, and I took some of the ideas for characters I’d come up with for it, stayed in Lime Grove Studio D, took things nine years on and came up with 1963.

I must also acknowledge here that I must have been influenced by Mark Gatiss’s 2003 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, just before the return of the show was announced. I don’t recall being directly inspired by it, but I would certainly have read it, and in there he spoke about how he’d pitched a birth of Doctor Who drama to BBC Four for the fortieth anniversary, but they didn’t take the idea up. Now, of course, ten years on with Doctor Who very much alive and kicking and turning fifty next year, and following the success of The Road to Coronation Street, BBC Two have finally commissioned it, and it will be shown in the autumn of 2013, probably sometime around the show’s anniversary on the 23rd of November.

Gatiss, I suspect, will create his drama entirely from the actual historical figures. I wasn’t quite so brave, and made my two main characters a fictional productions secretary on the show, Gillian, and a made-up possible writer for it, Toby. Around them the real events happened, and some of the apocryphal ones.

Verity Lambert offers a friend a fag on the set of her last Doctor Who as producer. Hang on, isn't this meant to be a children's show...?

There’s a lot of other stuff around at the time which you can put in as well – the fall-out from Profumo, the assassination of Kennedy the day before the first episode was shown, the rise of The Beatles and the first stirrings of the Swinging Sixties. Even people who aren’t Doctor Who fans can see 1963 as a watershed year, so they’re rich cultural waters to explore.

One odd thing about 1963, which I’ve never tried again since, was that I wrote it out of order. I tackled the bits I was most interested in or thought would be the most fun to write first, then filled in the gaps afterwards. I thought it might make the whole process of writing a novel easier, but in the end I don’t think it made much of a difference.

Looking back:
The creation of Doctor Who is a great story. I don’t think I did it justice in 1963 – I should have been bolder, making the events first and foreground, rather than making them the background to Toby and Gillian’s romance. 

 Sydney Newman

What’s so extraordinary about Doctor Who is that it’s a camel of a show – i.e. created by committee. Yes, Sydney Newman was the driving force behind it and without him it wouldn’t have existed... But if it had been only him, it would have been unrecognisable from what turned up on-screen, and probably would not have lasted as long as it has. Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Donald Wilson, CE Webber, Anthony Coburn, Waris Hussein, and many more... Take any one of them and their ideas away from the mess and the muddle and confusion of the beginnings, and the magic might not – probably would not – have sparked.

 Waris Hussein

It’s also fascinating that you have this most ‘British’ of cultural institutions, created in an era when you’d expect the BBC to be very much the old school tie, boys’ network... And making it happen are a Canadian, a couple of Australians, the Corporation’s youngest and only female drama producer, and a young Indian director out to prove himself. It’s a hell of a melting pot, the creation of Doctor Who.

It’s a story that should be told, and I am extremely glad that Mark Gatiss will be telling it to a wider audience in his drama, An Adventure in Space and Time, next year. Those of you who are not fans may perhaps think that I was rather deluded in thinking it might have any wider interest, but I would say in return it’s certainly no more niche than, say, The Damned Utd.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of how I came to be in touch with him, but the well-respected TV historian and Doctor Who expert Andrew Pixley kindly read through a copy of 1963 for me, and was very generous about it. It feels, now, like a novel that could have been a success had I come to it later, as a better, more mature writer... I might even have had another go at it at some point, but now Gatiss’s effort is finally making it to the screen, it seems rather redundant.

1963 is important for me in that it’s the first novel I submitted to agents and publishers where I received replies that made me think I might not be entirely wasting my time.

I kept a spreadsheet tracking all my rejections for 1963. I find that I received forty-two replies from various agents and publishers. (Yes, forty-two, but he doesn’t come into Doctor Who’s history until a lot later!) Eight of them asked, on the basis of my initial pitch letter, for a synopsis and sample chapters, while I had a few more kindly rejections telling me things like it “sounds a fascinating topic.”

One of the requests I received for sample chapters was from a lady called Laura Morris, of the Laura Morris Literary Agency. I sent her a section and we exchanged several e-mails before she eventually decided not to take on the work, but it was very exciting for me because it was the first time an agent had engaged me in correspondence. The first time I felt like I was being treated like a real writer, someone who wasn’t wasting the agent’s time and may have some potential in me somewhere.

I’ve never met Laura, but in the years since she has read several more of my submissions, and even on one occasion been kind enough to read an entire manuscript. She’s never been quite convinced enough to take me on, but I take heart from the fact that everything I’ve read about agents says they’re not going to waste their time talking to you if they don’t think you have something going for you. So 1963 was the first time I experienced that hope, that optimism – the first time I was able to pretend, albeit briefly, that I might yet make it as a novelist.

This was particularly heartening as the rest of life was a bit dispiriting at the time I was submitting 1963 to people. During the writing of the book, in the summer of 2005, I’d graduated from the University of East Anglia, and then spent the next few months hanging around Norwich being unemployed and wondering what was going to happen. In November that year I started my first full-time job, as an admin assistant at Norfolk County Council, and it was absolutely bloody awful. Depressing, boring work, and I was left thinking “Is this it? Is this all there is for the next however many years? Putting paper into photocopiers and sending books of accident forms out to care homes...?”

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