|Production Unit Manager · Producer · Writer|
Born: 12th August 1947 (as John Turner)
Few individuals in the history of Doctor Who were simultaneously as influential and as polarising as the man born John Turner in Birmingham, West Midlands. He was involved in the theatre from a young age, and started working as a television extra while still in his teens. With increasing frequency, he utilised “John Nathan-Turner” as his professional name in order to distinguish himself from another John Turner, who had starred in Knight Errant Limited. Nathan-Turner had the opportunity to study drama at Hull University, but he instead opted for a succession of stage manager jobs, before briefly filling in as a dresser for the BBC in 1967. The following year, he found permanent employment at the Corporation as a floor assistant.
It was in this capacity that Nathan-Turner first contributed to Doctor Who, initially on 1969's The Space Pirates, the penultimate serial for Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. Over the next two years, he also worked on The Ambassadors Of Death and Colony In Space, both for Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor. Other credits during this period included Monty Python's Flying Circus, Blue Peter and The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. Over the next several years, Nathan-Turner was promoted to assistant floor manager on shows like Z Cars, and then production assistant on programmes such as How Green Was My Valley. He also formed a life partnership with dancer and choreographer Gary Downie, who was later a production manager on several Doctor Who serials beginning with The Two Doctors in 1985.
In 1977, Nathan-Turner became a production unit manager, working on All Creatures Great And Small, Flesh And Blood and Doctor Who. His stint on the latter began prematurely: while trailing his predecessor, Chris D'Oyly-John, on the Fourth Doctor serial The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Nathan-Turner was asked to fill in to help alleviate the pressure on his overtaxed colleague. Nathan-Turner spent the next three years as Doctor Who's production unit manager under producer Graham Williams. A notable highlight was his successful budgeting of the show's first overseas location filming, in France for City Of Death.
Eager to become a producer, Nathan-Turner agreed to succeed Williams for Doctor Who's eighteenth season in 1980. Keen to bring the programme firmly into the new decade, he oversaw a complete transformation of its musical and visual style, including an emphasis on marketable costumes for the regular cast. Together with script editor Christopher H Bidmead, Nathan-Turner set a more serious tenor for the Doctor's adventures, and aggressively tried to recruit new writers and directors while almost pathologically avoiding Doctor Who veterans. None of the series stars who began the year were still there by its end, with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor regenerating into a new incarnation played by Peter Davison, with whom Nathan-Turner had worked on All Creatures Great And Small. Nathan-Turner also tried to develop K·9 And Company, a spin-off featuring the popular robot dog whom he had recently dropped from Doctor Who. However, it didn't proceed beyond a 1981 pilot called A Girl's Best Friend.
During Davison's three years on Doctor Who, Nathan-Turner oversaw the programme's shift to a new, twice-weekly format. He also engineered its twentieth-anniversary celebrations, culminating in the star-studded special The Five Doctors and a staggeringly well-attended convention at Longleat House in Wiltshire. Nathan-Turner was also eager to please -- or, some would suggest, pander to -- Doctor Who fans, with an increasing emphasis on returning monsters and obscure continuity facilitated by his friendship with diehard aficionado Ian Levine. Nathan-Turner maintained a high profile unprecedented amongst past Doctor Who producers, developing a tendency to point enthusiastically towards his stars at media events so that he could not easily be cropped out of press photographs.
Nathan-Turner's charisma and guile helped attract a number of familiar faces to guest roles, although he would sometimes be accused of populating Doctor Who with light entertainment stars poorly-suited to their roles. However, Nathan-Turner could also be a difficult man, his mood souring quickly: when writer/director Peter Grimwade inadvertently slighted the producer over a lunch invitation, he soon found himself persona non grata on Doctor Who. Likewise, Levine and script editor Eric Saward began to feel that Nathan-Turner was spending too little time fulfilling the responsibilities of his job, and too much time in America where fandom was in its ascendance, or else planning his annual Christmas pantomime which typically featured several Doctor Who luminaries. Nathan-Turner also wrote two non-fiction books for Piccadilly Press: Doctor Who: The TARDIS Inside Out was published in 1985, followed a year later by Doctor Who: The Companions.
In 1983, Nathan-Turner became the first Doctor Who producer to cast two Doctors, when he engaged Colin Baker to play the Sixth Doctor. However, the producer's insistence that his new star be dressed in a mismatched coat of many colours drew heavy criticism; many years later, Nathan-Turner would confess that it had been a mistake. Baker's first season in 1985 saw Doctor Who return to Saturdays, but with episodes running forty-five minutes rather than the traditional twenty-five. The transition was awkward, and was accompanied by backlash over a perceived increase in violence and horror. Deeming Doctor Who in need of a rest, the BBC postponed the 1986 season by eight months and ordered Nathan-Turner and Saward to jettison all of their existing plans. The twenty-five-minute format was restored, but without a corresponding increase in the episode count, leaving the production team with little screen time to win back audiences.
Nathan-Turner and Saward settled on a season-long story arc in which the Doctor would be put on trial, mirroring the programme's real-life straits. But the months that followed saw them struggle to assemble a suitable set of scripts, and creative disagreements over the conclusion of The Trial Of A Time Lord finally led to Saward's acrimonious exit. Nathan-Turner had already been planning to move on -- unsuccessfully assembling projects such as Impact, a proposed reboot of the Sixties soap opera Compact -- but he now found himself ordered not just to remain on Doctor Who but also to inform Baker that he was being fired. He was also forced to weather a storm of fan criticism, fuelled by derogatory public comments from Saward and Levine.
Sylvester McCoy was Nathan-Turner's third Doctor, but his arrival also coincided with something of a creative renaissance, spearheaded by new script editor Andrew Cartmel. Now Doctor Who's longest-serving producer, Nathan-Turner repeatedly asked to be replaced, but his requests fell on deaf ears. However, Doctor Who was now placed opposite the soap opera powerhouse Coronation Street in the schedules. Ratings continued to sink and, after three more seasons, the BBC finally cancelled the show with 1989's ironically-titled Survival. The Doctor Who production office was officially shuttered at the end of August 1990, putting Nathan-Turner out of a job.
Nonetheless, Nathan-Turner maintained deep connections with Doctor Who. He was regularly employed by BBC Enterprises (later BBC Worldwide) to assist with various Doctor Who projects, such as a 1992 video release of the incomplete Fourth Doctor adventure Shada. His last hurrah was Dimensions In Time, a multi-Doctor charity skit he produced and co-wrote to help celebrate Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary in 1993. Subsequently, Nathan-Turner largely focussed on pantomimes via his company, Teynham Productions. In 1996 and 1997, he wrote a series of sometimes brutally-honest reflections for Doctor Who Magazine. He subsequently adapted them as a talking book entitled The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, released by Big Finish Productions in 2000.
As the Nineties wore on, alcoholism sadly began to take its toll on Nathan-Turner's health. When a bad infection developed from an insect bite suffered on a trip abroad, he was unable to fight it off. Nathan-Turner died from liver failure on May 1st, 2002. In 2013, Miwk Publishing released a controversial biography of Nathan-Turner written by Richard Marson, entitled JN-T: The Life And Scandalous Times Of John Nathan-Turner. Allegations that Nathan-Turner and Downie had exhibited sexually predatory behaviour towards teenaged Doctor Who fans made tabloid headlines. Marson's book was reissued by Miwk in 2016 as Totally Tasteless: The Life Of John Nathan-Turner.
|Updated 19th January 2021|
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