REVIEW: ‘JN-T: The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan Turner’

JNT bookThis book is meticulously researched, frequently shocking and ultimately very poignant. Refreshingly frank, there are certain passages which will make the reader uncomfortable and it is those accounts which at the time of publishing attracted the attention of the mainstream media. For Doctor Who fans it covers an extensive and turbulent period of the show’s long history which is often ridiculed, not very fondly remembered and proves incredibly divisive. Finally, some of the inside stories of what went on during those unpredictable years are now revealed.

I only met JNT once, at the Doctor Who exhibition in Llangollen, North Wales in February 1997, which amusingly was renamed the ‘Doctor Who Experience’. Being a youngster I wasn’t fully aware of the behind the scenes element of the show or what a producer was for a start. I don’t recall if it was me or my father who recognised him first, stood outside the exhibition puffing away on a cigarette. Either way he had a presence about him, an air of authority perhaps, at least that was my perspective. I must have his distinctive autograph somewhere.

The book traces John’s journey from humble beginnings in Birmingham to the BBC and his final, sad end. He first worked on Doctor Who in 1969 as floor assistant on ‘The Space Pirates’ and would work sporadically on the show during his time learning the ropes within the BBC studio management department. In 1977 he became production unit manager on Doctor Who and a few years later became the producer and would retain that position until the show ended its original TV run in 1989, making him the longest serving producer of the show.

As already mentioned, when this book was published it gained a significant amount of media attention, coming on the back of revelations concerning Jimmy Saville at the BBC, making for a dubious front page story for the Daily Mirror. To be perfectly clear, none of the revelations claimed within the book are even remotely in the same league as the atrocities committed by Jimmy Saville. Inappropriate behaviour did occur, in BBC premises, and even while on the phone to Blue Peter matriarch Biddy Baxter. The author also includes an account of how he was propositioned at the age of 17 in the BBC club after a studio day; politely declining and making a swift exit. However, the author categorically states that “although I did meet some people who felt that their treatment at the hands of John and Gary was inappropriate, it would not be true to say that I’ve found anyone willing to testify to coercion or abuse”. That Gary was JNT’s long term partner Gary Downie, production manager on some Doctor Who stories during the late 1980’s. He is an individual that comes across very badly throughout the book. Unfortunately because the legal age of consent for homosexual intercourse was not lowered from 21 to 16 years, consistent with heterosexual law, until 2001 some of their activity was thus illegal. The author recants an incident he suffered where he was sexually assaulted by Gary Downie in a BBC building, hiding under a desk with only a script for ‘Timelash’ episode 2 to defend himself with.  Any Doctor Who fan who has endured the turgid atrocity that is ‘Timelash’ will agree that this was the only positive thing the script ever achieved. However, the most disturbing story concerns a complaint made by the mother of a 14 year old boy against Gary Downie during the production of a panto in Chesham. The complaint was later dropped but the story further supports the predatory accusations which are levelled at Downie.

Throughout the book, John Nathan Turner is described in largely favourable terms but his partner on the other hand is a total contrast. Gary Downie is described as vicious, vindictive and difficult to work with. He died in 2006. JNT was also flawed as many a Doctor Who fan will attest to. His decisions concerning Colin Baker’s costume or Bonnie Langford’s casting as a companion are often cited as evidence for his inadequacies. However, as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that in reality he was performing miracles to even keep the show on the screen for as long as it was.

Doctor Who had suffered significantly towards the end of the 1970’s. Tom Baker had become more difficult to manage. The budget for the show failed to stretch enough to accommodate the requirements. An entire story had even been abandoned due to industrial action. On screen the product had become sillier with, as JNT described, an ‘undergraduate humour’ which removed some of the dramatic tension. This was the environment which he was thrust into. He’d not been a producer before and was now responsible for a show which needed a lift. Tasked with taking the show into the 1980’s he immediately made stylistic changes, a new title sequence and theme music arrangement. Even Tom Baker’s costume got a refresh, but still retained the iconic scarf. By the end of that season he was also looking for a new leading man, a task he would need to complete on a further 2 occasions. Peter Davison’s first season saw the ratings increase and, although dipping the following year, they remained fairly consistent with 6.5 – 8 million viewers every week.

JNT was a very solid producer. He was adept at keeping the show in budget and as a result senior BBC management were comfortable in the fact that the show would be delivered without horrendous overspends. However, pressure and paranoia raged in the Doctor Who office and the workload was not limited to just the production. JNT was responsible for promoting the show with the press, approving products and pretty much every other aspect of the show’s life which nowadays requires teams of people to manage. Despite all his efforts he was thought of with disdain by bosses such as Michael Grade, controller of BBC 1, and Jonathan Powell, head of Drama. It wasn’t helped that neither individual approved of the shows output and its failings instigated the decision to place the show on hiatus in 1985. As a result they were reluctant to put JNT on any other shows, tarring him as a Doctor Who producer only and a failed one at that. A telling quote from Jonathan Powell states that he “wanted him to fuck off and solve it – or die, really.” The programme was not given any more money and was reduced to only 14 episodes a year, the ratings also plummeted. However, JNT utilised the 14 episode handicap during Sylvester McCoy’s tenure well, managing to make 4 different stories within those 14 episodes. What is crystal clear is that JNT was a passionate BBC man and that he adored Doctor Who. Sometimes however his actions were certainly dubious.

The book includes accounts of activity outside of the workplace which perhaps has no place being made public, even in death a person’s private life should remain private, not described in order to elicit a reaction or judgement. However, what is clear is that there were incidents where JNT would dangle the carrot of studio visits, souvenirs and information as a way to obtain sexual liaisons. The crass term of “doable barkers” was used to identify individuals who aroused his interest. These actions go far beyond inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour, but were a blatant abuse of his position of power. Unfortunately the way JNT attempted to appeal to fans, bringing back popular villains such as the Cyberman and the Master for instance, would ultimately result in his downfall. Football fans sit in the pub and talk about all the wrong decisions the manager at the club is making and how they could do things better. Doctor Who fans are exactly the same, part of what make them so unique. That passion for the show however can be dangerous and sadly during the mid to late 1980’s fandom became more vocal, more vicious and JNT was the target for those opinions.

JNT however was ahead of his time in some of his thinking. He recognised the potential of the growing American fandom, regularly attending conventions in the US. Now the ‘comic con’ circuit in America is massive, with Doctor Who being one of the most popular shows represented. He also understood the need to publicise the programme, and attempted to boost ratings by ‘stunt – casting’ recognisable names. This method can be effective as seen with Voyage of the Damned (2007) which featured a starring role for Kylie Minogue and achieved the highest viewing figures of the modern show. Given that one of the criticisms levelled by the BBC against the show during the 1980’s was low viewing figures who can blame him for trying to boost them in this way. He was further hampered by being scheduled up against the television colossus that was and still is ‘Coronation Street’.

Doctor Who finally stopped production with the last story ‘Survival’ being screened in 1989. JNT was made redundant by the BBC, his final day being 31st August, a date which parallels my own experience, 1990. His career never recovered. Drinking had always been a part of his working life, something not unique to John and rife throughout the BBC during that period. Faced with rejection after rejection for other job opportunities, his parents increasingly failing health and the burden placed upon him as the man responsible for the demise of Doctor Who, he drank more and more. Eventually, it would be his undoing, costing him his life. He died in 2002 of multi-organ failure and alcoholic liver disease.

It is such a sad and tragic end for a man who did a lot for the show, sometimes got things wrong but should be credited for keeping the show going against insurmountable odds. He was let down by the BBC, a corporation he clearly loved and was proud to work for, being kicked to the kerb instead of being placed into working on something which would’ve suited his talents. Although clearly flawed, he was a human being who deserved better treatment and should be remembered for his contribution to Doctor Who.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. His shocking falling out with Nicola Bryant stands out as a particularly difficult story to read but demonstrates that as well documented as Doctor Who has been over the years there are still tales to tell, even if some of them prove unpleasant to learn.

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