Veteran BBC director Graeme Harper discusses the creation of Dr Who and other iconic British television moments

Posted on 27 February 2019
By Rob Lea
  • Share:

It proved to be a powerful warp in a TV studio on an unassuming Toxteth street, that brought together a diverse group of Doctor Who fans to listen to seasoned director of television, Graeme Harper give insights on the production of some of British TV’s most memorable and historic moments.

The talk, ably hosted by Matt Charleton in the studio at VideOdyssey, inside Toxteth TV, covered Graeme’s early days on Doctor Who, through his test-by-fire on fire-fighting show ‘Steel River Blues’, shooting comedy with Rik Mayall to his triumphant return to Who bringing back the show’s most fearsome foes and it’s single most heart-breaking moment.

The seeds are sown

After discussing an extremely brief dalliance with acting, Graeme told us of his early experiences working with Who-director Douglas Camfield on the Tom Baker ‘angry vegetation’ thriller ‘Seeds of Doom’. Camfield was a director who wanted complete control of his production, something that wasn’t the style of BBC television in the 1970s.

Generally, the BBC employed camera crew would tell the director what shots they could provide via a camera script, and the director was expected to work with this.

For Camfield, this wouldn’t fly. He wanted to call the shots, and this was clearly a major influence on Harper’s work.

That’s not to say Camfield never asked for advice. As Harper – a runner at the time – recalls: “He would hold up a shilling and say ‘whoever gets us out of the shit, gets this…’ and my hand would shoot up. I just wanted the shilling.”

Ironically, Graeme recalls, getting a director out of the mire is the talent that would eventually lead to Harper getting his break as a director.
The production of ‘Warrior’s Gate’ – a serial in Tom Baker’s final season of Doctor Who and John Nathan Turner’s first as producer – was a troubled affair.

Much of this stemmed from the fact that Paul Joyce – who Harper describes as a fantastic ideas man – had little idea of how to set up shots. 

The solution was he would tell Graeme what he wanted and Graeme would go home after the shoot and stay up until two or three in the morning planning it out.

The fact that this has to be done showed the arduous nature of producing a weekly serialised television show. The idea of a Saturday afternoon in 1981 without a Doctor Who episode was beyond consideration.

Harper’s work on that story marked him out to former-Who producer Barry Letts – who had worked on the show during the Jon Pertwee era and was supervising JNT’s first season in charge.

Hello Goodbye

Graeme would soon get the chance to helm his own Doctor Who serial – one which is fondly remembered by fans of the show – 1984’s Caves of Androzani. The serial would mark the end of Peter Davison’s three-year-stint as the charming and boyish fifth incarnation of the Doctor.

Graeme lamented the lack of money available to spend on the production, recalling: “Michael Grade hated the show, he was trying to kill it, even though its still bringing in 8 million viewers on a Thursday evening.”

Ironically, the lack of money would give the show a realistic edge that would allow it to stand out from other productions at the time. 

At the time creating laser effects was more expensive than using blank rounds and explosive squibs.

When Graeme suggested using sub-machine guns, he remembers that the crew and cast thought he was mad, but the final product – especially the scene when the Doctor runs through a desert-like landscape with bullets exploding at his feet – is stunning.

Graeme recalls that it was Davison who paid the price for this realism; “The bullet effects were quite dangerous, Peter knew where to run, the explosions were six inches away from his feet. What we didn’t think of was the sand blowing up into his face.
“It was my first production and I blinded the Doctor!”

Davison didn’t hold it against Harper, remarking that he loved working with him despite thinking he was “bonkers”. In fact, the finished product was so good that he almost regretted his decision to leave.

But, leave he did and it was down to Graeme to film his regeneration scene – in which his Doctor would transform into the bombastic sixth Doctor -portrayed by Colin Baker. The inspiration or the scene came from the musical crescendo at the end of the Beatles track ‘A Day in the Life’. It makes for a stunningly effective scene which powerfully brings an era of the show to a heart-breaking end.

A Dalek no-fly zone

Graeme’s next experience with Who came the following year in Colin Baker’s ‘Revelation of the Daleks’. Sadly, it would be the last episode of the show filmed for 18-months after it was placed on hiatus by the powers that be at the Beeb.

It would exist on a knife-edge from then-on until its ultimate cancelation four years later in 1989. It’s irregular status with regards to production would also make this the last episode of classic-Who he worked on.

Sadly, one of Graeme’s main ideas for the show never came about. He had planned to introduce a flying Dalek which would be made possible with the use of a catapult! Unfortunately, when the time came to record the effect, a thick layer of snow foiled it. The Daleks would have to wait another four years to take flight.

One of the elements that did work in the show, was Alexi Sayle’s absolutely manic performance as a DJ employed to play rock ‘n’ roll classics to the dead. Harper recalls that Sayle’s performance has so muted during performance that – like the airborne Dalek – it almost didn’t make it to screen.

Graeme recalls: “In rehearsal, Alexi mumbled his whole performance. I never saw what he was going to do.

“It was so bad that John Nathan Turner came to me and said ‘I’m going to have to sack Alexi’.”

Harper urged him to stick with the surrealist, scouse comic and the resulting performance is a stand out in a serial which featured the talents of Clive Swift and Eleanor Bron.

A real B’stard of a job

A major lesson in Harper’s career would come during his work with one of Alexi’s Comedy Strip compatriots – Rik Mayall – on ‘The New Statesman’ the anarchic showcase for his heartless, Thatcherite politician Alan B’stard.

Graeme remembers Mayall – who passed away in 2014 at the age of 60 – with fondness: “He was a very naughty man! He should still be with us.”

Graeme would learn the foibles of shooting comedy on the show and how it differs from filming drama: “I used lots of close ups in my first episode, but
when you have two very funny people you should go wide and get their body language in shot.

“I learned so much from Rik and Michael Troughton.”

Graeme’s stint on short-lived fire fighting drama ‘Steel River Blues’ was less humorous. The show recreated massive events such as chemical factory explosions. It Graeme’s experience with large-scale disasters that likely led to him being chosen to direct one of the most shocking and well-realised moments in British Television History – the Weatherfield tram crash for Coronation Street’s 50th

Anniversary show.

After watching the truly spectacular sight of the crash – which elicited gasps from the audience – Graeme laughed: “I was told I was being brought back to wipe out Coronation Street.” 

The work reunited Graeme with the effects team from the newly returned Doctor Who, which is where the conservation headed next.

Old Friends and enemies

Harper’s return to Doctor Who in the regenerated series now helmed by Russell T Davies -saw him resurrect the Cybermen, who had lain dormant since he show’s 25th Anniversary in 1988. 

The filming was a daunting experience for the cast and crew – a mammoth 52-day shoot spanning four 45-minute episodes- which would see the Cybermen return and the Daleks emerge to engage the silver menace in an all-out-war in Canary Wharf. The episodes are perhaps most remembered for the heart-breaking sequence in which David Tennant’s Doctor bids farewell to companion Rose Tyler – played by Billie Piper.

Showing rushes from the emotional day of filming on a cold, wind-swept beach, it’s clear to see Graeme’s deftness of touch with this emotional performance. He marks himself out here as an actor’s director, even if he may have been a little naughty for not calling cut as Billie let her genuine emotion at leaving the show flood her performance.

Harper describes his affection for his actors and his genuine regard shines through. His practice of shouting “Pace and energy!” before every take may have elicited a little scorn from the press, but he explains: “It’s my way of telling the actors, ‘this is about you now’.”

Graeme would return to reunite the Doctor and Rose once more at the end of David’s final season, bringing back with him a less friendly face- the maniacal visage of the Dalek’s creator Davros.

In stunning behind the scenes shots we see the Daleks’ ship erupt into flames around the half-man, half-Dalek and yet I find my eyes drawn not to the destruction but to the almost operatic performance of Julian Bleach as he swears vengeance on the departing Doctor. 

It’s fully unrestrained and lunatic. In other words, perfect.

Impressive considering that under layers of prosthetics we can barely see Bleach’s face.

Graeme would give us another villain performance for the ages, one far more restrained but equally chilling as he filmed the incomparable Derek Jacobi play a Master emerging from years of self-imposed humanity to remember his place as the most-evil of the timelords. 

Harper describes wanting a tight close-up on Jacobi and him whipping towards the camera to hiss his denouncement “I AM the Master!” What Graeme hadn’t planned was the way in which Jacobi’s pupils went coal black at the moment of the announcement: “To this day I don’t know how he did that.” A line from the director that just made the scene the more chilling.

But amongst the tales of coldness and fire, Harper also has stories of genuine warmth. He talks of filming the reunion between the Doctor and Rose – rudely interrupted by a Dalek – on a London street observed by onlookers, remembering that between shots Piper, Tennant and Catherine Tate made time to talk to the fans and onlookers. 

He recalls breaking the ice for Tate when see was new to the show by quoting the famous line of her foul-mouthed grandma character, causing her to remark: “Why didn’t anyone do that sooner?”

He also tells of his work on the Sarah-Jane Adventures with Elisabeth Sladen as the titular character and how she had concealed the illness that would eventually take her life from her co-stars and the show’s crew. 

Graeme’s story is a trip not just one through the history of Who, but that of the most formative of modern Television. His rise through he ranks, holding various jobs, learning his craft meticulously and imparting it with warmth and joy.

The most heartening thing was the age range of the audience.

There were the expected forty to fifty years olds – long in tooth enough to remember the Doctor’s mad, bullet peppered dance across Androzani. Twenty to thirty-year olds who felt the same exhilaration as the Doctor once again faced down the cold emotionless visage of the Cybermen, and also much younger onlookers whose hands shot up as quickly as any others during the question and answer session.

“What do you think of the girl Doctor?” The young lady asked Graeme. 

“I was worried at first, but I think Jodie is absolutely brilliant,” Graeme responds.

“She’s taken something from all those previous actors.” 

As he moves on to the next question, I spot the girl turn and smile to her mother. I realise that the show I love is assured for another generation.

There are kids out there that will seek out Caves, Resurrection, the Age of Steel and other shows just as I did and thus experience his work with fresh eyes. It also dawns on me how much emotion Harper has teased from me over the years. 

That’s some bloody director.

The talk with Graeme was filmed and will be released soon on the VideOdyssey social media feeds. Stay tuned to more special shows like this audience with on the VideOdyssey Facebook events page