The Mary Whitehouse Experience
It’s the 16th of March 1984, and a ten year old boy is having his arms pulled out. Two elder boys have knocked him onto his knees, grabbed him by the wrists and are now playing tug-of-war with him. He is in great pain and begging them to stop. This is happening at Milverton Primary School, Somerset, the day after Episode Three of The Caves Of Androzani was broadcast. The boys are re-enacting Doctor Who.
‘Imitable violence is something to be avoided,’ says John Beyer, the Director of MediaWatch UK, the campaigning organisation formerly known as the National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association. ‘It is demonstrating a technique of coercion. Bullying is a real problem in schools, you shouldn’t go around showing them how to do it. These are not the sort of ideas we should be instilling in our children. But obviously what this shows is that Doctor Who was never intended as a children’s programme at all. It was always for adults.’
It comes as something of a surprise to hear such an opinion expressed, as it’s usually only Doctor Who devotees who are absolutely convinced they are watching an adult programme. ‘Doctor Who was to grab the adults, so that they would stay with the BBC right through Saturday evening,’ explains John. ‘When you’ve only got two channels, and you’ve actually got to get up off your backside to change channels, TV in those days was all about capturing an audience early in the evening.
‘Back in 1963, my brother and I always used to watch it, and there was certainly some running behind the sofa and all that. There were genuinely frightening scenes. Doctor Who was a child of its time – it was a time when interplanetary travel was a romantic notion, we’d just had Sputnik, and of course there was The Eagle comic with Dan Dare and the Mekon. Doctor Who was bound to be a success, because it was looking to the future, and caught the imagination.
John concludes: ‘So I think the children were just used as a means to get their parents to watch Dixon Of Dock Green or The Generation Game or whatever was on afterwards. So that explains why the producers thought that kind of violence was acceptable, because it was really targeted at an adult audience.’
The point as to whether Doctor Who was intended to be viewed by children or not is an important one, particularly on those occasions where the programme did not satisfy the rules for children’s programming. Certainly as far as kids were concerned, it was the grown-up’s programme they were allowed to stay up and watch. And if it occasionally broke the guidelines by being too horrific – then so much the better.
Doctor Who had a reputation amongst kids as the Bad Boy of television. It was violent, it was scary, it was rock’n’roll. It was addictive. But unfortunately, occasionally, the writers, directors and producers went too far, and the result was a programme unsuitable for a large section of its audience. This was flagrantly irresponsible, and it was this irresponsibility that ultimately brought about its downfall. Because, ultimately, Bad Boy reputations catch up with you.
Of course, as young fans we loved it when Doctor Who played bad. We adored being terrified, we relished gore and guts, and most of all we loved the shocking, heart-stopping cliffhangers. Cliffhangers that gripped you and left your stomach churning with excitement for a whole week. Cliffhangers that made you utterly desperate for the next instalment. Once you were hooked, it was impossible to think of anything else.
‘The only thing that the National Viewer’s And Listeners’ Association ever criticised about Doctor Who were the endings,’ notes John. ‘The endings where the hero was in obvious danger, because for a child a week is a very long time, and for them to spend a whole week not knowing their hero is safe would cause them real psychological and emotional disturbance. Something that [1950’s child behaviourist] Hilda Himmelweit was aware of, following her research into the effects of television on children, was that seeing their heroes under threat caused genuine anxiety. That was Mary Whitehouse’s principle objection to Doctor Who, that at the end of every episode the narrative closed off at a point before the audience knew the Doctor was safe. The stress and fear for many kids was very real.’
This point was picked up in David Attenborough’s 1972 booklet for BBC producers, ‘The Portrayal Of Violence In Television Programmes – A Note Of Guidance’. In the booklet, he advises that ‘Small children in particular work in much shorter dimensions of time than adults. Tomorrow is a long way off, next week an eternity away. In story-telling programmes, drama serials or feature films divided into several episodes, the dramatic effect of violent ‘cliffhangers’ at the end of individual instalments should be treated with caution… For young children even a week may be too long to wait for reassurance that the characters with whom they identify are safe.’
I can certainly remember experiencing this fear and anxiety. I’m sure I enjoyed it for what it was, and even if it caused the odd nightmare I don’t think it caused any long-term psychological damage. Except that I became a Doctor Who fan, but whether or not that qualifies as long-term psychological damage is a question beyond the scope of this particular article.
I put it to John Beyer that some fans enjoyed being scared. ‘Well, maybe they liked the anxiety, but I think the guidelines should have been enforced, and the BBC should have made sure the programmes followed the guidelines. What we’re talking about is the psychological harm that it may have on some children, given that the BBC marketed this show under the pretence that it was a children’s programme. They should’ve done away with the pretence and had it on at 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening, so that it would have been clearly signalled that it was not for children. And if the cliffhangers are the things the fans like, well, perhaps they have a different perception of it now.’
The classic example of Doctor Who going too far is, of course, the cliffhanger to Episode Three of The Deadly Assassin, where the Doctor’s head is held underwater for a prolonged period. Not only was it demonstrating a readily imitable technique of violence, in a realistic, modern-day setting, but it quite explicitly breached the BBC’s own guidelines by presenting a situation in which the hero is not merely imperilled but is shown to be unequivocally dead. It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, but watching it now one is uncomfortably aware of how it sits at odds with the spirit and context of the programme as a whole. Coming, as it does, at the end of an unduly violent episode which simultaneously predicts the development of virtual reality-based computer games and achieves the hotly-contested feat of being the most pointless 25 minutes in the programme’s history [‘The Doctor looks for the Master in the matrix. He isn’t there.’], the cliffhanger is unusually visceral and prolonged. Even today, you would not expect to find such a scene at the end of a children’s programme broadcast at five minutes past six. The cliffhanger made a great impact with many of its viewers, one of which was an impressionable Michael Grade, who would later describe it as ‘a horrific drowning sequence, which achieved the unique feat of putting Mrs Mary Whitehouse and myself on the same side in condemning it’.
This scene was, of course, the culmination of the far more realistic and adult approach adopted by producer Philip Hinchcliffe. A startling improvement in production values coincided with new innovations, such as freeze-frames, giving rise to some of the most shocking and memorable cliffhangers in the programme’s history. But what is also interesting to note is that this era, more than any other, saw what the then producer described as ‘a lot of emphasis on getting a very strong cliffhanger at the end of each episode’.
These cliffhangers were, quite frankly, superbly crafted. Nothing like them had ever been achieved on British television before. Each one was raised the dramatic ante, to place the Doctor or his companion in more obvious, more certain and more grisly danger than ever before. If the episode ending occurred at the point of crisis, then the moment would be snatched away from the viewer at the moment of greatest impact. As script editor Robert Holmes described the approach when interviewed by the Daily Express, ‘When Doctor Who started, as a true children’s programme, the monsters were rubber and you saw them almost at once. What horrifies more is the occasional flash of monster – bits and pieces of one. People are frightened by what might come round the corner or in the window.’
But, more often, the cliffhangers would now occur at a later point, where the situation presented would no longer be ‘the Doctor is under threat, how will he get out of that’ but rather ‘the Doctor has just been killed, kids, get over it’. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes-era saw the production team in thrall to the cult of the cliffhanger; and with some great success. The viewers were hooked and the fans relish it still.
This approach had been used sparingly before, but rarely with the conviction displayed during the Hinchcliffe era. It was this shift in emphasis that brought the show to the attention of the National Viewers And Listeners Association, as the programme began to wilfully transgress the BBC’s own code of conduct and, indeed, seemed to actively and consistently encourage controversy and complaint. In earlier times, the show had played safe by presenting cliffhangers at moments of dramatic revelation rather than moments of direct personal danger, and indeed this approach was re-introduced during Graham Williams tenure of producer, with very little detriment to the show’s appeal.
It is difficult to understate the impact that this particular controversy had on setting the seal on the show’s Bad Boy reputation. Doctor Who already had a playground cache for being a little dangerous, but now that reputation had been brought to the attention of parents and future Director Generals. Parents became far more wary of the programme – in my class at school two kids were forbidden from watching it, for fear it would traumatise them [they were also forbidden from enjoying ‘Grange Hill’, which had a reputation for causing bad language and antisocial behaviour] and a couple more refused to watch it at all because they had been terrified by other kids’ lurid accounts of the terrifying Daleks, Mandrels and Nimon.
And, of course, it changed the nature of the show. The new producer was very aware that the newspapers, concerned parents and most importantly his bosses would now be watching the programme with an eye sensitive to the remotest violent act. At the same time that BBC Director General was apologising to Mary Whitehouse with the words, ‘…with hindsight, the Head of Department responsible would have liked to have cut out just a few more frames of the action than he did’, that particular Head of Department, Bill Slater, contacted Graham Williams to offer him the producers’ job. As Graham related in DWB; ‘…pretty well the day the row broke about The Deadly Assassin, Bill Slater said, ‘Philip’s moving on, would you like to take over Doctor Who?’’. That would’ve been in November 1976; Philip Hinchcliffe wouldn’t be informed that he was moving on until the following January; ‘Basically I had no choice… I didn’t know I was being replaced until Graham Williams walked in the door… They asked me to stay on for another year…then their decision was reversed.’
Hinchcliffe had intended to leave the show anyway, and it would be wrong to suggest that being asked to work on another BBC series was anything other than a testament to his success as a producer of adult-orientated drama. However, it’s worth considering that when a later Director General found himself in a similar predicament, the option of changing the production team was not open to him, and so he had to take more drastic measures.
It’s a familiar story that Graham Williams was asked to ‘ensure that the violence didn’t reach those sort of protest levels’, and indeed it was a policy he happily endorsed, as he related to In-Vision: ‘To me, a lot of what Philip had done went too far. When I learned I was taking the show over, I made special efforts to watch it. One of the ones I saw – Genesis Of The Daleks – had Lis Sladen climbing up a rocket gantry… On reaching the top, she is deliberately tripped by her captors and left dangling in mid-air while they laugh. I had by then just become a father… and so was more aware that if children were going to be watching Doctor Who at 5.25 then a lot of this sadism and deliberate shock horror… was not very defensible. I do not think Philip was right to let the drowning sequence in The Deadly Assassin to go through, because the violence was too realistic and could be imitated. ’
However, the other directive that Graham received was to ‘take the programme even further away from ‘kiddy kiddy land’.’ In other words, to make it distinctly a programme to appeal exclusively to adults and older children, and thus remove the problem of very young and sensitive children watching the programme. It is doubtful whether Graham succeeded in this – for all their sophistication, stories such as City Of Death and The Nightmare Of Eden still held a strong fascination for primary school children, including this writer in particular. But again this confirms the idea that the BBC considered the show a programme for teenagers and adults; a show which children should be discouraged from watching. Or, at least, that was the official line they took when they received complaints…
‘I wanted to appeal to older children – those of twelve and thirteen, as well as to the adults in the audience, and that meant having more plausible situations and handling things in a more plausible way,’ Philip Hinchcliffe admitted in DWM. ‘We were putting out stuff that would frighten four year-olds. It’s up to the parents to monitor the TV output they allow into their homes’.
This is a commonly-held argument put forward amongst TV producers, which is either startling naive or an attempt to renounce any responsibility for the content of one’s own work. Robert Holmes also repeated this stance in DWM; ‘I also wanted to toughen it, try to make it more adult – to widen the audience and incorporate the mums and dads, who previously just sat their children down to watch it… If [parents] think they have a sensitive child then they don’t let it watch these programmes. It’s not up to television to cater for the minority of kids who might be influenced.’
There is something of a contradiction in this argument, in that Robert Holmes admits that parents would leave their children to watch Doctor Who unattended, but then goes on to say that if the parents disapprove of the show’s content they should restrict their child’s access to it. One might argue that he was trying to encourage parents to monitor their children’s viewing by making a show that would appeal to them too, but doing so by increasing the violent content is a rather peculiar way of going about it.
Robert Holmes famously admitted to the Daily Express, in defence of The Deadly Assassin. ‘Of course it’s no longer a children’s programme. Parents would be terribly irresponsible to leave a six-year-old to watch it alone. It’s geared to the intelligent 14-year-old, and I wouldn’t let any child under ten see it.’ He later went on to say that it could be okay for younger children to watch the show with parental supervision.
But the fact is that parents did leave younger children to watch the show unattended, for three simple reasons. Doctor Who was a programme with a great appeal for children, which was generally accepted and advertised as a children’s programme, and it was shown in a time slot for children. It is absurd to suggest that parents would not be under the impression that such a programme was suitable for young viewers to watch unsupervised, and it absurd to condemn them for doing so when the programme turns out to feature content that is wildly inappropriate for its audience, its reputation and its time-slot. As an ex-policeman, it is bizarre that Robert Holmes would not consider the possibility of children being left alone with the television.
I put Holmes’ argument to John Beyer of MediaWatch UK. ‘I think they may well have argued that. I can imagine the Director General of the BBC saying, ‘Oh, well, at 5 o’clock we can get away with this, and at 6 o’clock we can get away with that - chances are that very young children will have gone to bed.’ But I don’t think that argument is realistic, because it was starting on an early Saturday evening, and as we know, children tend to stay up later on Saturdays, and you’re always going to have children watching alone. I mean, obviously, if you’ve got parents or guardians around they can reassure the child, but if you’ve got children viewing alone - and parents on the whole tend to trust the BBC and broadcasters not to do things that will psychologically harm their children – then they would believe that their hero was in real danger. I think the BBC schedulers knew what they were doing, they weren’t daft. I don’t think there was any real discussion about 10-year-olds or 11-year-olds, what they were concerned about was to have more viewers than ITV, and if they could do it with Doctor Who then they’d do it.’
Or, as Robert Holmes put it in his DWM interview; ‘With this adult approach, we pushed our audience figures up… from just under seven million per week to just over eleven – which can’t be bad!’
John Beyer continues. ‘Dr Hilda Himmelweit, in her seminal study, Television And The Child, was one of the first people to look at the influence of television violence on children, and many of the conclusion that she drew were incorporated into the BBC’s own producer guidelines. One of the conclusions she drew was that if something violent occurs on the screen, [the parent] should let the scene play out and then discuss it with the child, because if you turn off then that is the image left in the child’s mind.’ However, when that violent moment occurs at a cliffhanger, there is no opportunity for the parent to allow the scene to play out; the whole point of the exercise is to leave a disturbing, shocking image in the child’s mind. The only way to reassure the child is to allow them to watch the programme again the following week, so the parent is never given an opportunity to switch off the TV set if the story becomes too frightening.
However, Holmes’s public defence differed from his producers’ memory of his private attitude. Hinchcliffe remembers that, ‘We had a number of incidents with Bob’s stuff. He tried to push it just that little bit too far… It was too much for the kids… Bob used to sit there, chuckling at the back, saying he loved it all. Bob was a bit of a devil and used to say, ‘Let’s scare the buggers!’’. Graham Williams described Holmes admiringly in DWB as, ‘A sadistic old bugger’. Whilst he was undeniably the most talented, imaginative and witty writer ever to work on the show, his work – both for Doctor Who and other shows - was undeniably coloured with black comedy, where characters are gratuitously cruel and where emphasis is placed on inflicting physical and psychological pain. When reined in by a script editor, his stories were often the closest Doctor Who ever got to genius, but his work on other writers’ scripts tended to heighten the sadistic aspects, and in the latter years of the series his worst excesses began to be encouraged, rather than discouraged, by the script editor.
Holmes also said, in DWM, that it is not television’s responsibility to cater for the minority of kids who might be influenced by television. John Beyer naturally disagrees. ‘Obviously I don’t think you can necessarily say that any one image will disturb every child, of course not, but it may disturb some and not others, depending on their upbringing and how well-adjusted they are. It’s a question of whether they are familiar with what Doctor Who is, whether they are aware if what they see on TV is real or not.’
The Deadly Assassinwasn’t the first time that things had got out of hand. The Pyramids Of Mars, The Seeds Of Doom, Genesis Of The Daleks, The Brain Of Morbius… However, it is relevant to look at the way an earlier production team dealt with a similar furore, after another Robert Holmes script, Terror Of The Autons, where toys, flowers, telephones and armchairs would spring to live and suffocate people. ‘If violence occurs in familiar surroundings, that causes additional anxiety,’ says John Beyer, ‘because children will think that it can happen to them.’
Holmes later suggested it had been an educational; experience. ‘We learned our lesson years ago, with some plastic daffodils which killed just by spitting at people. We didn’t consider that people actually have plastic daffodils in their homes. They caused screaming nightmares, so we scrapped them. You must never attack the security of a child in its home. If you make something nasty, you don’t stick it in a nursery… They’re strictly fantasy deaths. No blood, no petrol bombs, nothing a child could copy.’
Except, of course, later Holmes stories would frequently include blood, imitable acts of violence – stabbing, strangulation, drowning – and The Seeds Of Doom features a character making a petrol bomb. In case any viewers missed the lesson, the Doctor would demonstrate how to make a gas-based explosive a year later, twice. John Beyer: ‘I don’t think it’s very clever at all. Producers should exercise caution and responsibility, and just not show that sort of thing. It’s like drug abuse – I mean, you have programmes now showing someone cutting up coke and sniffing it. Even if kids know this stuff already, you still don’t have to encourage them by making the information so readily accessible, and making it appear as though it’s completely normal behaviour.’
However, after Terror Of The Autons, that production team went to some lengths to avoid any further controversy; producer Barry Letts says, ‘The BBC kept a very close eye on us after that and we made sure we didn’t do that again’. The show quickly adopted a lighter, more fantastic tone, the settings moved from recognisable homes and streets to space stations and alien worlds, and the Doctor switched from Venusian Karate to the more stylised, and slow-motion, Venusian Aikido.
The third and final time Doctor Who was significantly criticised for violence was during the Colin Baker era. It must be said, though, that the negative press coverage was nowhere near as great as that incurred by Terror Of The Autons or Tom Baker’s first three years, and that it occurred largely after the story about the series’ ‘hiatus’ had broken - and may indeed have been influenced by it, as journalists sought to find an alternative angle on the ‘Doctor Who Axed In BBC Plot’ brouhaha. But nevertheless the season, and Robert Holmes’ story The Two Doctors, attracted their share of complaints.
The reason is simple. Doctor Who was making exactly the same mistakes it had made in 1977 all over again, but this time without the wit and ingenuity, and with production values that were no longer a showcase for the BBC’s state-of-the-art. The programme had markedly fallen behind the times, and was becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern television viewers. It had become a ‘cult’ show, at a time before Star Trek – The Next Generation and its innumerable imitations and successors demonstrated that ‘cult’ programming was a viable option.
Most of all, though, the problem was that the content was again at odds with the programmes’ reputation, audience, and time-slot. Eric Saward had, quite understandably, been blown away by Robert Holmes’ script for The Caves Of Androzani, and his influence can be felt throughout 1985’s Doctor Who. Most conspicuously, there is The Two Doctors, where Robert Holmes was given free rein to recycle a story concept that Graham Williams had rejected on grounds of taste, about a race of humanoid aliens who delight in the taste of human beings. The result is an undisciplined and messy pitch-black comedy, with characters brandishing knives, eating rats, licking up blood, carrying about dismembered body parts and stabbing each other in the chest. Never mind that these are humanoid aliens, not cannibals – this is a programme indulging grossness for shock value.
The least inspiring elements of The Caves Of Androzani are taken and repeated but with little of the wit or economy. Where Peri was courted by the disfigured Sharez Jek, now every villain it seems is lusting after her and wearing a half-mask to cover some disfigurement. The keen mix of character threads of Androzani is attempted in Revelation Of The Daleks, but instead of contributing to the greater plot, semi-humorous mercenary double-acts simply appear, look macho with a gun for a bit, and then die, having achieved nothing. It is a parade of gratuitous, uninhibited shock-effects.
But there’s nothing in Season 22 that hadn’t already occurred in Season 21. The difference being that with Peter Davison in the lead role, the show had both a moral purpose and a fluffy, leading man with lost-bunny good looks. With Colin Baker in the lead role, suddenly the Doctor was abrasive, petulant, frequently unlikable, and, most importantly, the script writers had lost sight of Terrance Dicks’ ethos that the Doctor ‘is definitely against violence. He never uses a gun. He fights only if he is forced to, and then he always spares his enemy’. The good guys just weren’t good enough anymore.
And this was shown at 5.20 pm. In his defence, script editor Eric Saward said, ‘There have never been moral absolutes. I’ll never understand Mary Whitehouse’s point of view. She seems to want a bland, safe little world in which everything is quiet and ordered and the traditional class structure is completely in place. That is simply confirming a stereotype and is an evil portrayal of society… to pretend that there’s no consequence to violent conflict is to cheat and to deceive.’
This is something of a caricature of Mary Whitehouse’s position. Whilst any campaigning organisation is going to occasionally appear extreme, because of the nature of debate to polarise and because those with strongly-held views are likely to be the most of vocal, the NVALA’s arguments were rational, consistent and shared by much of the viewing public.
Admittedly, Mary Whitehouse was a ‘moral campaigner’, and many of the moral standards which her generation advocated are now regarded as repressive or inequities. But the point was simply to hold programme-makers to account, at a time when there was no other means to do so – there were no regulatory bodies or commissions to appeal to.
‘Mary Whitehouse was a teacher, and part of her job was teaching sex education, which was an innovation in those days,’ explains John Beyer. ‘The 1944 education act required this kind of teaching to be within a moral framework, fidelity within marriage and no sex before marriage. One weekend Mary advised her girls to watch a BBC discussion programme, Meeting Point, which would be covering sex education. And when she came to school the next day, the girls said, after watching the programme, that it would be okay to have sex if you’re engaged. What she was having to teach had been undermined by that programme, and that is what led her to consider the power of television.’
‘Most people in the business understand that it is a very powerful influence; politicians use television to get people to vote for them, Children In Need make us part with lots of money, and nowadays politicians use EastEnders and the other soaps for campaigns for literacy and sexual health. And advertisers spend millions trying to get us to buy their products. It is a window – not on how people behave – but on how TV people wish to portray people’s behaviour. There is a dichotomy, between how people behave in the real world and EastEnders, for examples, where they stagger from crisis to crisis week in, week out.’
‘That gives the lie to the notion that TV reflects reality, they don’t at all. And I find myself saying that the quality of acting is often so poor, the dialogue is so poor, and the storylines are predictable, I just think that we’ve got to the point now where we ought to be demanding better. I think we’ve had our bellyful of DIY, cookery, soaps, gardening, make-over programmes, we ought to be demanding a wider variety of programming. And I’m afraid that if what you’re concerned about is ratings over quality, then that’s the wrong priority.’
‘Quality in my view is not just technical quality, it’s also about the content, and if a show includes bad language then I think that’s low quality. But we’re not just concerned with taste and decency issues. People in the media argue that good quality programming can only be possible is only possible with adequate funding, and if the funding isn’t there we can’t afford costume dramas like Pride And Prejudice, but I would argue that if you had good programming, good plots with a beginning a middle and an end, then I think the viewers would be much more ready to pay more for television.’
‘Mary Whitehouse was carried along by an upsurge of public support. It was very much a pioneering exercise – the NVALA was one of the first ever pressure groups, before the days of Greenpeace and CND. When you look back to the early 60’s there was a very different moral attitude in those days, the social and moral revolution that happened then was really aimed at the young, and those days the grown-ups still had a pretty broad consensus on what was right and wrong. But the BBC, under Hugh Carlton Green, wanted to change all that. Instead of allowing society to develop in an evolutionary way, society has been developing in a revolutionary way according to the dictates of certain people in charge of television. Television does shape values and attitudes, for good or bad, but it’s a change being directed by some TV producer with a particular axe to grind. I remember listening to Phil Redmond talking about the gay kiss on Brookside, and he said that what it’s about is changing public attitudes. The Naked Civil Servant was the first to broach that subject, and now lots of programmes broach the subject on television, we’ve got this Tipping The Velvet about so-called Victorian lesbianism.’
Moving reluctantly away from so-called Victorian lesbianism and back to the Colin Baker era, we finally reach the point where the show’s Bad Boy reputation catches up with it. The new Director General of the BBC, Michael Grade, is a passionate believer in high-quality television, prepared to go out of the way to support shows he believes in. However, that also means that he is equally sharp in withdrawing support from shows he doesn’t like, and unfortunately, along with Pop Quiz and Crackerjack, Doctor Who fell within the latter category. Michael Grade rarely watched the show and enjoyed it less, feeling it to be ‘outmoded in an age when children were watching the sophisticated special effects wizardry of ET and Star Wars.’
In addition, when he did watch it, he saw a programme that had returned to its bad old habits of including material that was inappropriate for its audience and time slot. And this was at a time when the BBC was no longer in a position to weather storms in the newspapers as it had been in the past; indeed, ironically, this is demonstrated by the fact that the BBC quickly caved into the tabloid ‘Save Doctor Who’ campaign and issued a reassurance that Doctor Who would be returning.
But when Michael Grade tuned in to watch Season 22, all he saw reinforced the impression he had already formed that Doctor Who was losing ground to US imports, was gratuitously violent and was run by producers who did not care if their show aroused public controversy [John Nathan-Turner later joked that he prayed every night that Mary Whitehouse would complain about the show, in the belief that it would improve their ratings]. In his autobiography, Michael Grade describes Doctor Who as a show where ‘a show window full of tailors’ dummies… smashed through the glass and calmly walked down the street killing everyone in sight’. I believe it is a very relevant point that Michael Grade axed Doctor Who not only because of what it was at the time, but also because of what it had been in 1971 and 1976. The programme was axed because of a couple of decade-old Robert Holmes stories had created tabloid outrage, and because when Michael Grade thought of Doctor Who, that was the unhappy memory that came to mind.
Of course, Doctor Who did return, and the BBC management took further steps to avoid generating controversy- firstly they instructed the production team to tone down the violence and increase the humorous content, and actively enforced this policy against the wishes of the script-editor and writer [Robert Holmes again], and then later they moved the show to 7.35, a clear indication that the programme should not be watched by very young children.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that the move to a later time slot coincided with the show having a sunnier, more cartoonish, more children’s television feel, as it meant the very young viewers who would get the most enjoyment from the programme would no longer be able to watch it, and that adult viewers were increasingly alienated and embarrassed by what they saw, The stories may have covered serious issues and grisly subject matter, but it did so with such a light-hearted tone that it made The Chronicles Of Narnia look like Edge Of Darkness. Admittedly, this made the occasional moment of horror all the more surprising – such as Kane’s melting face – but, overall, Doctor Who had been emasculated.
Doctor Who could no longer thrill or terrifying its audience; it was on too late for the very young kids, and by this time in the 1980’s the older kids were not so easily frightened. I remember Ian Briggs lamenting at a convention about how it was impossible for Doctor Who to scare children, when children nowadays have routinely seen Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street on video.
It is another irony that nowadays some of the most controversial Doctor Who stories are now shown on satellite channels early in the morning, and are readily available on video. However, this is because it is felt that young viewers are now more media-savvy, and if they seek out Doctor Who then they are unlikely to be shocked by it. The feeling is that children are likely to be put off by the relatively archaic production values, and the sluggish plotting, to such an extent that even if they do continue to watch they will no longer ‘believe’ in the story to a sufficient extent to be frightened by it, unlike those who saw it at the time of first broadcast.
John Beyer also has no objection to omnibus repeats and videos, because they do away with cliffhanger-anxiety.. ‘Because you haven’t got them hanging on for a week, it’s resolved in the next scene. I would say that was healthy. There isn’t the same tension.’
Finally, I asked John whether, aside from potentially causing some children psychological damage, Doctor Who could be a positive influence for children too. After all, the show is frequently educational on matters of science and history, the Doctor is an admirable role-model and each story is a morality play in which courage, humour, friendship and goodness overcome evil. ‘Yes, Doctor Who does show that the good guy wins, and I would say that is a positive attribute, the good always overcomes the evil one, whether it be Cybermen or Daleks or a green glowing globule thing. But there are also the counter-arguments, there are violent images, and there is the imitable quality of that violence. Yes, the Doctor on the whole is the good guy, but on the other hand you have the influence of all the bad guys. There’s a lot to criticise in the way Doctor Who has been marketed by the BBC, the way it is clearly aimed at adults not at children because of the ratings battle, you can’t say that none of that matters just because Doctor Who is the good guy. Because violence is harmful.’
For more details on MediaWatch UK, visit www.mediawatchuk.org
[Each is a Doctor Who clip, followed by John Beyer’s response]
DWM showed clips of some of the most terrifying moments in Doctor Who to MediaWatch UK Director John Beyer…
Doctor Solon discovers why brain surgery has a reputation for being tricky. First he drops the brain on the floor, then he shoots his assistant. Sarah whimpers.
‘Blimey, I don’t know what to make of that. I would have thought that could be very disturbing, that disjointed brain spilling all over the place. And the thing about the shooting in the stomach is that he was staggering around afterwards, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong about violence on television, it tends to minimise the effects.’
Chancellor Goth holds the Doctor’s head underwater. The Doctor stops struggling. Cue freeze frame, end titles, and a rapid change of producer.
‘If you end a programme with the hero in danger, then that can cause some psychological disturbance. It’s the same with a claw around the neck or Doctor Who’s head under the water. It’s a clear example of the guidelines being breached, because of the state of anxiety that could be caused in children.’
Sarah Jane Smith is dangled from the top of a rocket. And this time there isn’t a convenient magic girder to land on. Sarah whimpers.
‘I think you’ve got a further complication there, violence against women. It’s not that violence against men is more acceptable, but the broadcasters’ own code does express particular concern about violence towards women and children. It seems as though the producers were trying to find a way around the no-physical-attack rule.’
The Auton dummies come to life and threaten the policemen, shoppers and gormless cap-wearing cyclists of Ealing Broadway.
‘I think that’s a bit frightening, the no-eyes, empty heads. That could be a bit worrying for children. Violence in a familiar setting can be particularly disturbing. I’d imagine that children walking by shop windows would wonder if the dummies would suddenly come to life and shoot them.’
Kane looks out of the window, and discovers the time does indeed melt the snowman.
‘Now I find that disturbing myself, having somebody’s face dissolving. That’s pretty horrific for very young children, I would say that is an extremely violent image.’
Sarah discovers Keeler vegging out in bed. He barks, ‘You. Want. Me. To. Die!’ Sarah whimpers.
‘That’s not violent, though psychologically it’s very disturbing.’
Tom Baker is confronted by a glowing, tumescent green polythene bag, and refuses to allow it to be the most ridiculous performer in the scene.
‘That could frighten some children, because it’s very unfamiliar and really rather startling. I would’ve thought a big green blob like that could make their eyes pop out on stalks. I can well imagine young children having nightmares about it.’