JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner
|ISBN||1 908 863013 1|
|Summary: For more than a decade, John Nathan-Turner, or JN-T as he was often known, was in charge of every major artistic and practical decision affecting the world's longest-running science fiction programme. Richard Marson brings his dramatic, farcical, sometimes scandalous, often moving story to life with the benefit of his own inside knowledge and the fruits of over 100 revealing interviews with key friends and colleagues, those John loved to those from whom he became estranged.|
Scandalicious by Robert Smith? 31/1/16
I have a confession to make: I'm something of a slow reader. It takes me time to devour a book and I'm always intensely jealous of those who polish off a novel in a matter of hours, when it often takes me days, or weeks.
I mention this for two reasons. The first is because I'm reviewing a work that's all about revealing secrets, so I thought I'd throw in one of my own. The second is because I read this 380 page book in just three days.
This is an astonishingly good book. But it's so much more than that. What Marson has done is capture - truly capture - the life and (scandalous!) times of JN-T, a man we thought we knew, but didn't. It's a gripping - and entirely adult - read: full of sex, drugs and showtunes, with no-holds-barred sex scandals, pedophilia, law-breaking and Doctor Who companions being spat in the face. But it's also a tale of love and compassion and friendship and kindness. It's one that had me weeping buckets of tears at the end. Most of all, it's one that I simply could not put down.
The genius of this book is that it sets out to answer a single question: why did some people love JN-T so much, whereas others despised him? Often the same people, at different stages. Reading this roller-coaster of a biography, you actually get the answer. JN-T was a man who inspired and demanded great loyalty, who partied like there was no tomorrow, who was capable of great generosity, who took Doctor Who so seriously that he would scream at anyone who crossed him, and who was partnered for life to a very difficult and unlikeable man.
By the end, you can entirely see why he inspired such lifelong love in people such as director Fiona Cumming and Jessica Martin (Mags); why people he'd fallen out with patched things up and still adored him, such as Tom and Colin Baker; why Nicola Bryant never spoke to him in the latter part of his life; and why Eric Saward or Gary Leigh still hate him to this day.
Myths are exploded (there never was a casting couch for Matthew Waterhouse), stories meticulously researched (the 1985 hiatus had nothing to do with money reallocated to EastEnders) and a huge number of personalities interviewed, from actors to fans to former BBC controllers. As for the not-entirely-consensual sex scene with Ian Levine... well, I'm not going to go into details, because I don't think I'll ever get that image out of my head.
Indeed, much of the book is probably going to be uncomfortable reading. Marson even draws attention to the parallels with the Jimmy Savile scandal. Although only one instance of pedophilia is ever mentioned (not by JN-T and not at the BBC), there's nevertheless an enormous amount of illegal and technically underage sex going on. (The homosexual age of consent at the time was 21, despite the heterosexual age of consent being 16.) It might have been a stupid law, but it was still broken, and frequently.
Of course, every great story needs a villain, and Jonathan Powell steps neatly into that role. Blatantly admitting how much he hated both Doctor Who and JN-T, the final five years of Doctor Who are the story of a passive feud between two men, with our beloved show caught in the crossfire. With Russell T Davies acting as a sort of after-the-game referee, we see how the mood and culture of the BBC at the time led inexorably to JN-T's rise and fall, taking the show with it.
John Nathan-Turner was the man who should have been BBC Controller by the time he was 40, who contained a passion for Doctor Who that rivalled any one of us, who was a gay man boldly stepping out into a dangerous but exciting new era and who was riven with insecurities. He was a PR and accounting genius, the man who ensured Doctor Who continued past 1985 and also the man indirectly responsible for the death of the Classic Series, despite his every attempt.
This book tells the story of that man. It's one of the most fascinating biographies I've ever read. Not just in the Doctor Who world, but in any context. If you have any opinion whatsoever on John Nathan-Turner - and who doesn't? - then stop whatever you're doing and read this book right now. No matter how slow a reader you might be, you won't regret it. I literally could not put this book down, which is the real reason it only took three days. There, my secret's out.
"Trying to please all these people around me is trying to reach for the moon" by Thomas Cookson 4/10/16
It was mainly out of need for closure on JNT's era that I ordered this book straight from the Miwk website, hoping it would help put to bed my issues with the era.
John Nathan Turner's childhood is described here as a very rosy one of being the popular enthusiastic entertainer and joker of the playground, the pride of both his parents' eyes and enjoying a lot of freedom to travel cross country in pursuit of his love of the arts and entertainment.
This effectively leaves the reader genuinely rooting for John to achieve his career dream of working in television and putting on an entertaining show, and Marson builds up the anticipation well to the day JNT finally got the producer's job.
It's made clear JNT's first year found favour with many people (including Marson himself) and that the then-Head of Serials harboured a lot of good will toward the show (and was notably concerned at the drop in quality in Castrovalva). But nonetheless there was a feeling at the BBC that the show was regarded by now as old, past its best and a low priority (which left K9 and Company dead on arrival).
It's also made clear JNT always planned his run on Doctor Who to be short term and, right from his first year, was making plans to move on, pitching promising and detailed ideas for new soap operas that were sadly never taken. So instead all JNT's ideas for character complications and histrionics that would've better suited his planned soap operas went into Doctor Who instead, to make it more soap-like, more continuous and thus presumably make it appear to be a show that still had current appeal that kept viewers interested.
From hereon, the book charts the tragedy of how JNT ended up stuck with the show and his promising career stagnated, and eventually the ruin of the show led to him being regarded as damaged goods by fans and the BBC alike.
Marson's account doesn't dodge the fact that JNT did become proprietorial and paranoid about the show and his staff. Frequently, the suggestion's made and quoted that what largely held JNT back and alienated people from his circle was his relationship with Gary Downie, who often whispered poison in John's ear and blocked anyone he didn't like or trust from their clique. It's strongly insinuated Gary was sowing John's paranoia that soured the show behind the scenes.
The question nagged at me at how, given JNT's childhood, none of his joie de vivre seemed to make it to screen in the show's dour Davison period. But it all becomes clear when Marson covers Eric Saward's part and paints Saward as a bitter introvert with insufficient contacts and little understanding of people and someone who was lazy at the job and had a tendency to neglect writers for months on end after receiving their submissions. It even charts how Earthshock was an emergency to cover a lost Christopher Priest script, and Marson clearly disapproves of how Saward kept trying to repeat the sheer futility of Adric's death over and over again with his later cannon fodder characters until it lost all meaning.
The joie de vivre of Black Orchid stemmed naturally from JNT's nepotism in favouring writers like Terrence Dudley from All Creatures Great and Small, whilst Saward clearly had no time for such writers, and thus they were never seen again. Even though Dudley was probably the best match for Davison's Doctor and brought an upbeat quality to the show that Saward seemed to want to erase. This has always been my issue with Saward's run and the way it lost touch with the culture and spirit of the times. That if there's no spirit of collective happiness or essence of life, then there's nothing that feels worth fighting for, which to me did the real lasting damage to the show. Likewise, Marson sets the record straight about how much Ian Levine pushed his way into his position of influence rather than being sought out by JNT.
Sadly, by 1983 it becomes clear how much JNT had gotten sucked into the convention lifestyle and how his paranoia now was extending to his own fanbase and in turn how fandom was beginning to turn hostile to him and resenting his ownership of the show. Unfortunately, it seemed by now JNT was clinging to the job like a grudge and ultimately the show would die with him.
John's promiscuity with young gay fans is also heavily covered. But no one's come forward since the whistle was blown to say that what took place was actually abuse or done without consent. Homosexuality was still then largely regarded as an evil sin and had to be performed with discretion, which only worsened its suspect perception. This has made it too easy to retroactively demonise JNT as a grooming predator.
The cancellation is given a thorough dissection, and Marson is dubious that the reasons were economic or motivated by any financial crisis the corporation hadn't weathered and overcome before. The impression given is that it was to do with Thatcherism and the policies of weeding out the dead wood. It's made clear Johnathan Powelll was fairly positive about Season 22 before the cancellation decision saw him change his tune and how this was the beginning of the BBC's institutionalised contempt for the show and that, if not for the media coverage and fan protests, the show probably would have never returned.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part is the exchange of letters between JNT and Saward, charting the ultimate corrosion of their relationship, how paranoid and resentful Saward was becoming and how JNT's efforts to convince him his paranoia was unfounded fell on deaf ears.
The Starburst interview is roundly condemned for the emotional effect it had on JNT and his staff (particularly Colin). I've previously defend Saward's position here. Many fans say Saward should've just got on with the job and accepted JNT's authority was law. Whereas I've always felt the show's spirit means favouring the underdog of petty authority that should always be questioned. Even now, I feel the Starburst interview was simply something Saward had to do. Thus far, I've believed Saward is someone who wants to bury the hatchet and put his beef with his late boss to rest, and, though he still slates the man's decisions on DVDs, I'd believed he did so in the hope that each negative remark he makes will be his last and it'll eventually be purged out of his system.
Unfortunately, the book paints Saward as being far more vindictive than I thought, when he decided to cite legalities to sabotage some of JNT's late 80's convention screenings. At which point, I lost all sympathy for Saward in ruining what could've been a real comeback for the show in the US.
Johnathan Powell suggests the problem being that JNT and the show were by now interfused. He'd produced the show so long that it became difficult to imagine or trust anyone else competently managing it, whilst its decline on his watch made JNT likewise seem too much an untrustworthy liability to be reasonably given any other show.
When Cartmel enters the scene, there's a sense of renewed hope. That JNT now has to hand a script-editor he can trust, with a healthier notion of what the show should and shouldn't be doing, and, for a time, it seems the wounds left by Saward's poisoning of the show are being healed. But it's too late. Director Alan Wareing is particularly vocal about how he felt Survival came off terribly and was an awful episode to end the show on.
Overall, the book seems to assert that, for the show to have been seen as having a chance of life beyond the 80s, JNT should've been moved on far sooner, but frankly he didn't need to leave the show early half as much as Saward did. That JNT could be a tyrant and was possibly given too much power to abuse too soon, but, more than anything, his downfall was brought about by his association with some rather poisonous and dodgy people, and, as his paranoia ate away at his job, what he kept within his fence proved far worse than what he kept out. It's tragic, because it also charts how much of a new lease of life the show had seemed to have with JNT's first season and his overseas promotions of it.
With the show over, I'd assumed JNT had enjoyed a happy retirement released of his burden. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. The book charts JNT's continued alcoholism and existence without much purpose beyond the show, much like a university drop-out would (describing how he'd even neglected several received cheques for the rewards of his past work) and the poisonous influence of Downie causing a particularly ugly split between him and Nicola Bryant that never was resolved in John's lifetime. There's also an account of a disastrous attempt by him to get a high-profile pantomime off the ground and how the production turned sour, his short temper asserted itself and he was left dejected and unwanted. His attempts at recapturing former glories coming to nothing.
The tragedy of course being that JNT still wanted to be working in the BBC and had the corporation managed his talents better far sooner, he indeed could've.
Eventually, the book comes to cover his terminal illness brought on by years of excessive alcohol abuse. In a way, this account is so torturous in its description of the progression of his liver disease that the reader is almost left wanting his death to just happen and be over with, and presumably that's how a lot of his loved ones by his side felt too toward the end.
But the description of John's funeral is an altogether happier affair, as it describes how the occasion was more of a glittery, camp, stage-show celebration of his life, and many commentators remarking that it's how John would have wanted it to be. And so the book doesn't end dourly or bitterly.
Overall, the book did a splendid, much-needed job of humanising a figure that his fans often hysterically deified as someone who could do no wrong or his detractors only painted as a harbinger of hollow spin or the antichrist himself. Certainly, for me, it was very welcome to get a human dimension to a run of the show that so often came off as downright soulless.
But it was also a book about where his life and ambitions took JNT and where they unfortunately stuck him where he couldn't progress beyond and how his talents were ultimately mismanaged. About the high-point in his life that sadly couldn't last and from which it could only go downhill, about the many what-ifs and about the more obvious applications of its gifts that sadly didn't transpire.
Maybe Powell was right that the show needed ending sooner, back in 1983, if only to free up John for other work whilst he was still seen as a promising new talent. Maybe the show should've been sold Stateside sooner.
But by the book's end there isn't really any bitterness. Only sadness. A sense that the circumstantial blame has been reckoned with and buried and that John himself has been mostly exonerated, though not entirely. He's certainly proven to be not quite as much to blame as is claimed. In that regard, it absolutely was a book I'd long needed to read.
In some ways, the book could be seen as a cautionary tale of misapplied talent and the wrong associations, and certainly made me look at my own life and wonder if I was living too much Eric's introverted way, which leads only to festering bitterness and imagined slights, self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy. In that regard, it does seem that ultimately John lived the better, fuller life and was far less to be pitied.