Verity Lambert 

22 June 2008

David Brockman remembers Verity Lambert OBE (27 November 1935 – 22 November 2007)

Back in November 1963, the organisation of the television industry was beyond me as a nine year old but already I was acquiring an interest in the credits and genres of programming.

“Produced by Verity Lambert” as Doctor Who was from 1963: I could recall easily this sort of information, better indeed than my five times table. I had, at the time, no idea that my path in life was to lead me to a career where for many years, I daily passed that original ‘Police Telephone Box’ in the BBC TV Centre scenic dock but also that one day, at the ebb of her phenomenally creative life, I was to meet Ms Lambert herself.

It was a humbling experience. It was clear to me, in October 2007, that she was most unwell and less than four weeks after the meeting I had with her, she fell into a sleep from which she never awoke.

Television was still a spell binding invention for those new to it in the halcyon days of the early 1960s. My parents rented a black and white set from ‘Vista Home TV Rentals’, just off the High Street in the East London borough where I grew up. At the time there was only a two-channel choice – BBC tv, from the iconic new Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush, or Associated-Rediffusion on weekdays and ATV at weekends, from the ITA network, locally on channel nine.

Doctor Who began on BBC tv in 1963 and by the time of the second of these adventures I found myself on the edge of my seat or classically hiding behind the sofa. Following Dr Who’s arrival on the planet Skaro, terrifying metal monsters called Daleks had been unleashed on the unsuspecting viewers, determined to “exterminate, eradicate and obliterate” anything that got in their way. Against the odds, as a female producer, Verity had been drafted in by BBC drama head Sydney Newman to add sparkle to his new science fiction project. It was notably to be made by his drama department and not the children’s unit.

Verity had been born in London, the daughter of an accountant and was educated at the legendary girls public school Roedean. She left at 16, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris for a year and at a secretarial college in London for eighteen months.

In 1956 at 21, she entered the television industry as a secretary at Granada Television in their press office but left after six months. Following her involuntary departure from Granada she took a job as a shorthand typist at the ‘Associated-British’ subsidiary ABC Television – the North and Midlands weekend contractor – working as a secretary to producer/director Dennis Vance.

Verity soon became production secretary assisting Macdonald Hobley and Mary Malcolm on the legendary ABC discussion series State Your Case – an early precursor of today’s Question Time. She soon moved from administration to production, working on drama programming on the popular anthology series ABC Armchair Theatre, networked throughout ITV and overseen at the time by the company’s new Head of Drama, Canadian producer Sydney Newman.

On 28 November 1958, while Verity was working as production assistant on the series, an extraordinary thing happened, probably unprecedented in the whole history of British broadcasting. Actor Gareth Jones collapsed and died just off camera during a scene in which he was appearing in a real time performance of the hour-long play Underground.

Virtually all drama was then transmitted live and that fateful day in 1958 she found herself experiencing the hazards of ‘TV without retakes’ at first hand. She was in the ABC Manchester Didsbury control room just as Jones had the heart attack and summarily died in mid scene but off camera. During a mercifully imminent commercial break, the director Ted Kotcheff moved swiftly to redistribute the man’s lines among the other cast members, leaving Verity to run the control room. Amazingly, viewers were left none the wiser.

After a year working as the personal assistant to American television producer David Susskind at the independent production company Talent Associates in New York, Verity returned to ABC (UK) with an ambition to direct, but got stuck as a production assistant again. She was about to abandon television as a career when in December 1962 Sydney Newman – who had left ABC to take up the position of Head of Drama at BBC Television – recruited her across to the Corporation to help produce Doctor Who, a new fantasy serial that he had personally initiated.

Conceived by Newman as an educational science-fiction series for younger viewers, the programme concerned the adventures of a crotchety old man travelling through space and time with his sometimes unwilling companions, in a machine larger on the inside than the out. The show was a risk, and in some quarters not expected to last longer than six or eight weeks.

Verity was not Newman’s first choice to produce the series as Don Taylor and Shaun Sutton had both declined the position, but he was very keen to ensure that Verity got involved after his experience of working with her at ABC in Manchester. “I think the best thing I ever did on that was to find Verity Lambert,” he later told Doctor Who Magazine in 1993. “I remembered her as being bright and, to use the phrase, full of piss and vinegar! She was gutsy and she used to fight and argue with me, even though she was not at a very high level as a production assistant.”

When she arrived at the BBC in June 1963, she was initially given a more experienced associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, to assist her. Doctor Who debuted on 23 November 1963 and quickly became a success for the BBC and later a national institution, still running 45 years later and now the longest running science fiction programme in the world.

Head of Serials Ronald Wilson had strongly advised against use of the Daleks, but after the series successful airing, he conceded that she clearly knew the genre far better than he did and he would no longer interfere in her decisions. The success of Doctor Who also garnered press attention for Lambert herself and in 1964 The Daily Mail published a classically sexist feature on the phenomenon focusing on the perceived attractiveness of its young producer: “The operation of the Daleks … is conducted by a remarkably attractive young woman called Verity Lambert who, at 28, is not only the youngest but the only female drama producer at BBC tv… tall, dark and shapely, she became positively forbidding when I suggested that the Daleks might one day take over Dr. Who.” This was the general approach to women high achievers that the media customarily took at the time.

Verity created the first two seasons of Doctor Who, eventually leaving in 1965. “There comes a time when a series need new input,” she told Doctor Who Magazine thirty years later. “It’s not that I wasn’t fond of the show, I simply felt that the time had come. It had been eighteen very concentrated months, something like seventy shows”. (It ran almost continuously in those days – like The Archers or East Enders today). ” I know people do soaps forever now but I felt Doctor Who needed someone to come in with a different view.”

In the 2007 Doctor Who episode ‘Human Nature’, the Doctor (as ‘John Smith’) refers to his parents as ‘Sydney and Verity’, a clever and delightful tribute to both Newman and Lambert, and on Christmas Day 2007, in the Doctor Who episode ‘Voyage of the Damned’ a dedication to her memory was shown at the end of the episode as a tribute.

Verity moved on to produce another BBC show created by Newman, the swashbuckling action-adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67). The long development period of Adam Adamant delayed its production and during this delay Newman asked her to produce the early episodes of a new soap opera, The Newcomers. Further productions for the BBC included a twenty-six-part series of adaptations of the stories of William Somerset Maugham (1969). Verity was also obscurely referenced in Monty Python’s 1969 sketch “Buying a Bed,” which featured two shop assistants called Mr. Verity and Mr. Lambert. This was an intra-departmental joke..

In 1969 she left the staff of the BBC to join the brand new London Weekend Television company, producing Budgie (1970-72) directed by Moira Armstrong and Alan Gibson, in two series of 26 episodes. Former British pop artist Adam Faith played the eponymous Cockney petty crook ‘Bird’ in this well loved comedy drama, shown on ITV in the Friday 9pm peak-time slot. Due to union action by TV technicians of the ACTT (Association of Cinematograph and Allied Technicians), some early episodes were made in black and white as a protest over pay, in the same dispute that caused a few episodes of LWT’s iconic Upstairs Downstairs to be recorded in monochrome.

In 1974 for a period, Verity was back at the BBC producing Shoulder to Shoulder – a series of four 75 minute dramas, written by Douglas Livingstone and Midge Mackenzie, about the Suffragette movement. It starred Sian Phillips and focussed on the Pankhurst family and was directed again by Moria Armstrong, aided by the talented Waris Hussein who had been involved in the early Doctor Who episodes.

When the actress Georgia Brown accused the BBC of not providing worthwhile roles for women she was challenged to provide a format, which she did. This result was an epic telling of the story of women’s struggle to the right to vote. With a superb cast, excellent writing and top-notch production the BBC produced a series which stands alongside other BBC masterpieces from the seventies and early eighties such as I, Claudius and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The BBC Drama department was split three ways, Plays, Series and Serials. Serials catered for continuing drama and the classics, such as I Claudius, and Oliver Twist, or modern drama such as The Brothers and Doctor Who, where the story continued from week to week.

Series produced drama where the characters could be the same each week but included a complete story per episode, such as Softly Softly – Task Force, When The Boat Comes In and Secret Army.

Plays were responsible for Play For Today and Play Of The Week, one-off dramas, but this department also made some “series” , though essentially plays within a generic title, like the ill-fated Churchill’s People. This series was planned to run for 26 weeks but was cancelled midway through production.

More successful projects from BBC Plays were the huge Shakespeare series produced by Cedric Messina, Orde Wingate a TV biopic and Shoulder to Shoulder, which had Verity’s involvement throughout.

BBC Nations and Regions also contributed to drama output in this period, Gangsters from BBC Birmingham, The Life and Times of David Lloyd George from BBC Wales and That Vital Spark from BBC Scotland. The regions often hosted drama for London: Birmingham filmed The Brothers, and children’s drama The Secret Garden was filmed in Glasgow.

In 1974 Verity became Head of Drama at Thames Television, which had been created from the merger of her former employer ABC Weekend with Rediffusion Television, when ITV contracts were renewed in 1968. During her time at Thames she oversaw several high-profile contributions to the ITV network, including The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Rock Follies (1976-77), Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-92) and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978).

Rumpole started out as a BBC Play for Today but the corporation did not see it as a series, so the producer Irene Shubik offered it to Thames. Lambert was happy to take it on but after producing the first series Shubik left, claiming that Lambert had reneged on promises made to her about her fee. Shubik reflected bitterly that she should have secured the rights before approaching Thames. After Verity had blazed her trail through BBC, London Weekend and Thames, other strong creative women became producers and directors,

1976 and Verity was to be found overseeing the work of Euston Films, Thames’ subsidiary film company then best known as the producers of The Sweeney. In 1979 she transferred to Euston Films as the company’s Chief Executive, overseeing productions such as Quatermass (1979), Minder (1979-94) and Widows (1983). Thames’ Quatermass was very different to earlier BBC and cinematic incarnations and its star billing was Sir John Mills. He had just filmed The Zoo Gang for ATV’s ITC films, which failed to appeal and was cancelled after one short series. Quatermass was rushed onto the ITV network when ITV resumed after a long and bitter strike of technicians. Minder , and a first for actor-writer Lynda La Plante, Widows, were both enormous successes.

At Thames and Euston, Verity enjoyed the most sustained period of critical and popular success of her career. The common factor was her tenacity and drive. A small, energetic woman, she kept up a ferocious schedule and refused to accept the conventional wisdom. Although not a writer she had an instinctive grasp of whether scripts worked and a strong business sense. She was renowned for having a short fuse, and Jeremy Isaacs, her boss at Thames Television, once remarked that she could reduce grown men to tears.

Television historian Lez Cooke described Verity’s time in control at Thames as “an adventurous period for the company, demonstrating that it was not only the BBC that was capable of producing progressive television drama during the 1970s. She wanted Thames to produce drama series ‘which were attempting to tackle modern problems and life,’ an ambition which echoed the philosophy of her mentor Sydney Newman all those years before at ABC Weekend in Manchester.

Howard Schuman, the writer of Rock Follies, also later praised the bravery of Lambert’s commissioning. “Verity Lambert had just arrived as head of drama at Thames TV and she went for broke,” he told The Observer newspaper in 2002. “She commissioned a serial, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, for safety but also Bill Brand, one of the edgiest political dramas ever…. before we had even finished making the first series, Verity commissioned the second.”

The Naked Civil Servant was a huge success and won a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for its star John Hurt as well as a Broadcasting Press Guild Award and a prize at the Prix Italia; Rock Follies won a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award, while Widows also gained BAFTA nominations and ratings of over 12 million . Unusually for a drama serial, it picked up viewers over the course of its six-week run. Minder went on to become the longest-running series produced by Euston Films, marching on for over a decade after Verity Lambert’s departure from the company.

Verity became Thames Television’s Director of Drama, and was given a seat on the company’s board. In November 1982 she left Thames, but remained as Chief Executive at Euston until November 1983 before taking up her first post in the film industry, as Director of Production for EMI Screen Entertainment (formerly The Associated British Picture Corporation and parent company of the former ABC Weekend TV – how things come full circle!).

Her job here was very frustrating as the British film industry was in one of its periodic states of flux, but she did manage to produce some noteworthy features. Later she expressed some regret about her time in the film industry in a feature for The Independent: “Unfortunately, the person who hired me left and the person who came in didn’t want to produce films and didn’t want me. While I managed to make some films I was proud of – Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild and Clockwise with John Cleese it was terribly tough and not a very happy experience.” Verity became Chair of the BFI Production Board in 1981.

In late 1985 Verity left EMI, frustrated at the lack of success and at restructuring measures being undertaken by the company. She established her own independent production company, ‘Cinema Verity’. The company’s first production was the 1988 feature film A Cry in the Dark, starring Sam Neill and Meryl Streep and based on the “dingo baby” case in Australia. Cinema Verity’s first television series, the BBC1 sitcom May to December, debuted in 1989 and ran until 1994.

Verity produced Alan Bleasdale’s hard-hitting drama serial G.B.H. for Channel 4 in 1991, winning critical acclaim and several awards though her relationship with Bleasdale was not entirely smooth. The writer admitted in subsequent interviews that he “wanted to kill Verity Lambert” after she insisted on the cutting of large portions of his first draft script before production began. However he conceded that she was right about the majority of the cut material and when the production was finished he only missed one small scene from those she had demanded be excised.

While running Cinema Verity, there was however one “Lambert Turkey”, a BBC serial called Eldorado. This was launched in 1992 as an early-evening soap opera about British, French and Danish expatriates in Spain. At the time it was the biggest series that the BBC had entrusted to an independent producer and was worth £10 million to Cinema Verity. The show got off to a tepid start, was ridiculed by the critics and was eventually watched by fewer people than Gardeners’ World. After a year Alan Yentob, the new Controller of BBC1, put it out of its misery. Lambert said it had been rushed out too quickly and been miscast, for which she took full blame; she managed to extricate herself from the debacle and move on.

Lambert’s biography at Screenonline suggests reasons for this failure: “With on-location production facilities and an evident striving for a genuinely contemporary flavour, Lambert’s costly Euro soap Eldorado suggested a degree of ambition … which it seemed in the event ill-equipped to realise and a potentially interesting subject tailed off into implausible melodrama. Eldorado‘s plotting … was disappointingly ponderous. As a result, the expatriate community in Spain was exploited as a theme rather than explored.” . Even a decade after the programme’s cancellation, much harsher reviews abound, Rupert Smith’s comments in The Guardian in 2002 being a typical example. “A £10 million farce that left the BBC with egg all over its entire body and put an awful lot Equity members back on the dole… ”

In the early 1990s, Verity tried to win the rights to produce Doctor Who independently for the BBC but this effort was unsuccessful because the BBC was already in negotiation elsewhere. Cinema Verity projects that did reach production included Sleepers (BBC1, 1991) and The Cazalets (BBC 1, 2001), the latter co-produced by actress Joanna Lumley, whose idea it was to adapt the novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Verity continued to work as a freelance producer outside of her own company. She produced the popular BBC 1 comedy-drama series Jonathan Creek, by writer David Renwick, after taking over the show for its second series in 1998. From then until 2004 she produced eighteen episodes across four short seasons along with two Christmas Specials. She and Renwick also collaborated on another comedy-drama, Love Soup, starring Tamsin Greig and transmitted on BBC One in the autumn of 2005.

In 1973, Lambert had married television director Colin Bucksey (a man ten years her junior), but the marriage ended in 1984. They divorced in 1987. She had no children, once telling an interviewer, “I can’t stand babies — no, I love babies as long as their parents take them away.”

In 2000 two of her productions, Doctor Who and The Naked Civil Servant, finished third and fourth respectively in a British Film Institute poll of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century. In the 2002 New Year’s Honours list Verity Lambert was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to film and television production and the same year she received BAFTA’s Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Contribution to Television.

I met Verity one evening in October 2007, while out in London. She had been to a theatrical event with a close friend and colleague. I had no idea at the time that she had been ill but she looked pale, gaunt and very unwell . She wanted to spend time chatting about her BBC days. She had left the BBC by the time I was based at Television Centre in 1973 but she reminisced about various BBC drama producers we both knew, many of them women.

She died of cancer five days before her 72nd birthday. She was due to have been presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Women in Film and Television Awards a few weeks later in December.

Her last work was to produce the second series of Love Soup. A dedication, to her memory, was shown after the first episode was aired on March 1, 2008.

Rewind back to winter evenings in the sixties, when I was wrapped up with Doctor Who adventures featuring cavemen, Cybermen, and all sorts of unearthly creatures. Never in a million years at the time, did I realise that not only one day, I would encounter the Doctor’s dark blue police box but that I would spend a few precious minutes talking to the producer named on the end credits ,Verity Lambert. She brought not only Doctor Who and the Daleks to British television screens, but also a huge range of popular and experimental drama to BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and to our cinemas.

I am still as fascinated as ever about all the bits of television after and in-between the programmes, the titles, the music and the credits, nowadays squeezed ever quicker and smaller as if it is assumed the public are not interested. Verity Lambert was one of the first screen names I remembered when watching as a nine year old thus showing that some of us at least, take these details in. Verity was a one woman powerhouse of British television production. Our television history would be massively inferior without her inspired leadership and creative input.

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