Paul Bernard Interview
This interview with former Doctor Who/The Tomorrow People director Paul Bernard was conducted by Alan Stevens in 1989, and was first published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 409/10.
Where were you born?
I'm a Londoner. I was born in Fulham.
How did you become involved with television?
I started in the theatre as a designer, but back in those days everybody had to do everything. I'd build the scenery as well as paint it, and I also ended up doing some acting. I eventually got into films and then into television. I joined the BBC in the early Sixties during the new creative revolution that was going on, and they invited me to train as a director, and for the next two years I worked for the BBC as a staff director.
So, you were working on live programmes?
Always live, yes. That was the style, that was the system.
Did you find it nerve-racking?
I didn't find it nerve-racking, I found it exciting. That, to my mind, was what television was all about.
You then left the BBC. Why was that?
It was due, on my part, to a little bit of discontent. Having done a two year contract, I found I was being called “a series director”. I was working on the original Z Cars. That was the one with Brian Blessed, Colin Welland, Stratford Johns, Frank Windsor... and it was a privilege to be one of the guys who directed on that. It was creative and innovative television, but, as much as I enjoyed that, I found that I was being treated as a director that did guttural, instant, very dramatic dramas, and having been a designer, I wanted to do something more visually creative, and as I found I couldn't get off the treadmill, I thought the best thing to do was to leave and offer my services to anybody else who wanted it.
So, what was your first production when you went over to ATV?
Nothing better really. Emergency Ward 10. I was still pigeonholed from my work at the BBC and it was some while before I got involved with the visually creative side at ATV, but then I got onto light entertainment, which was where you were allowed a more creative input into the visual side of things. And from there... well, ATV had a policy that their directors did everything, from Police Five, which was a five minute thing that reported on weekly crime activities, to massive documentaries, to important half hour documentaries, to Play of the Week. That's what I wanted, and that's what I did, and for seven years that was the diet.
During those seven years, did you find any rivalry between the different factions that made up the independent stations?
There were a lot of big battles. A lot of infighting, yes. In fact it contributed to my leaving ATV in the end, rejoining the BBC and getting onto Doctor Who. The in-battles were between companies as to what time in the evening, and/or day, particular drama series should go out. Each company was producing various soap operas, or drama productions, and of course, in their own area putting them out at peak time, but when putting out productions from other companies, they wouldn't do that. They'd put them out at four-thirty in the afternoon, or twelve o'clock at night, when everyone had gone to bed. So there was a lot of antagonism between people, and Lord Grade wasn't the easiest of people to do business with, and as I was working for Lord Grade, I was right in the middle of all the infighting.
Did you know Barry Letts before you joined Doctor Who?
I first met Barry when I was given a play to direct that he had written; some time during the end of the sixties, possibly around 1969. My involvement with Doctor Who came about when Barry heard from two writers I had been working with, Robert Holmes and Louis Marks, that I had taken wing again and was looking for something rather special. Barry had never said to me that he particularly liked what I had done to his play, but he must have been fairly happy, because he rang me up and asked me if I'd like to come over and start off the new season of Doctor Who, and I thought it over and said, “yes, I would very much,” and told ATV “thank you, and goodbye,” left the sanctuary of Lord Grade and tripped back to Television Centre.
Louis Marks, of course, wrote your first Doctor Who, “Day of the Daleks.”
Like me, Louis Marks has come over from ATV, and had, for a time, been my story editor there, on a series called Market in Honey Lane. He'd been the story editor on it for two years. And he, in turn, had left a little bit upset that it wasn't going to carry on. Grade had promised him that there was going to be a new series, but then, as a result of this continual infighting, Grade had surrendered, and agreed with the other companies not to ask them to put on Honey Lane at a peak period, and in fact he closed it down. This upset Louis and that's why he went over and joined the BBC.
It's common knowledge that the Daleks weren't in Louis Marks' original scripts. Did you know you'd be working with the Daleks?
Not initially. When Barry asked if I'd like to start the season, the Daleks weren't mentioned at all. I knew that Louis Marks had written it and I knew it was going to be a very good one. Then during my last few days at ATV, as I was packing my papers up and cleaning out my desk, I heard that it had been decided to write the Daleks in, and that sounded very good, and I was very pleased. I thought the original story was very, very good, but I think it was further enhanced by having the Daleks introduced. Whoever's idea that was, it was a very good one.
Did you know there was later a bit of a wrangle with Dalek creator Terry Nation, as the production team had failed to ask his direct permission to use them?
I remember being made aware of that fact, but I was also told not to worry and just carry on, as they were sure it would all be sorted out. Finally, I was told that everything had been resolved, but that I had to ensure that he was credited as Dalek originator on the episodes, which I did. I assume that some kind of payment was also agreed. But that was my only instruction, to give him a credit.
Did you get to watch any of the old Dalek stories to prepare yourself?
Well, the instant I got over to the BBC we obviously chatted, and I think we went down to the viewing rooms and we saw one of the earlier ones. I'm not too sure which one it was, and whereabouts in the evolution of the Daleks the story featured, but I do very vividly remember it's the one with them all gliding over Westminster Bridge.
Up until that point, the Daleks hadn't appeared in a new story since 1967. What state were the props in?
Not good. In fact, that was really the first day of realisation that I wasn't going to have the kind of budgets I'd been used to at ATV. I went down to the props store to have a look and to find what was there, and pathetically there were two in some good order, another one that was really battered and a half of one, and I was told that was what I had to work with. I said, “surely we're going to need more than that?” And then the producer went and asked someone in the design department to find out how much it would cost to make some more. I wasn't privy to the argument that went on, but whatever it was it frightened him because back came the answer “we can't afford to make any more. You've going to have to make the three and a half Daleks work.”
What was it like directing the Daleks?
You don't direct a Dalek, to be honest. When working with the Daleks you had three little actors working in the rehearsal room. Two of them had operated Daleks before, but I recall they were a little rusty as to what a Dalek could do, and what it couldn't do.
You didn't use the same actors who voiced the Daleks back in the Sixties. Was there any reason for that?
No. I don't remember making a calculated decision on that, but I did use different actors.
In the Sixties the Daleks used to be silver and blue, but for “Day of the Daleks,” one was painted gold, and the other two a sort of gunmetal grey. Was this your idea?
I don't think it was. I recall, when we found the Daleks in the prop store, one of them was gold anyway, but that may have been caused through dis-colouration. Also, Doctor Who had just started using Chromakey and the background colour they were using, and which would be keyed out, was blue. Now, I consider blue to be a difficult colour to work to, but at that stage I still had to convince them to go with yellow, and so that's why the decision was made to repaint them. Also, as I said, the Dalek props weren't really in very good shape, so probably painting two of them a thunder grey help to disguise that.
Now, you'd worked with Chromakey before at ATV...
Yes, and I'd built up some reputation. The BBC, of course, called it CSO, and independent Television called it Chromakey, so they were talking two different languages. I'd already been experimenting with various colours on a variety series with Tom Jones, to give him rather interesting backgrounds. And I really discovered that yellow gave far the best, truthful marriage of the background to the foreground. In fact, it was very deceptive as to whether it was being used. It achieved a highlight on the shoulders and on the head, but that looked like a real highlight, whereas the blue looked synthetic and unreal. And so Barry agreed to let me have a day’s studio time to experiment and to prove to the satisfaction of the engineers that yellow was a viable and better alternative to blue.
Did you find that the BBC were very set in their ways?
Oh, yes. At first there was a little bit of sullenness, but then they got into the swing of it and all sorts of things happened during that experimental day in the studio. We put it through some vigorous testing, to find out how far you could go with it and uncover its shortcomings. One of the major problems was that if you had any movement with the master camera you got bleeding, I'm sure you've seen this, you get a breakup of the picture with any sort of movement. Blue would do this quite a lot, and although yellow would also do it to some extent, we found that using yellow minimised it considerably. So you could pan your shots, or zoom in, or zoom out, without too much bleeding within the frame of the picture.
“Day of the Daleks” was the first story to feature the Ogrons. I understand you contributed a great deal to their look.
I did. Louis described them as being fearsome and awesome creatures used by the Daleks as watchdogs. They were meant to be something like Alsatian dogs. After reading the script, I told them that I didn't want to go for the dog image, and thought the image of a rather large ape would be much more frightening. I also thought size was a major factor, and so stipulated that the actors we used for the Ogrons had to be a minimum of six foot six. What I didn't know then, of course, was that this was going to end up with me employing members of the Soho underworld, but, I have to say, they were great fun. They were softies, or certainly they were in my rehearsal room. I don't know what they were like in a backstreet in Soho at three in the morning. I don't really want to think about that, but, I have to say, they were the most punctual of my artists. They were always the first to arrive at rehearsals, very keen and always on time.
What was Jon Pertwee like to work with?
Pertwee was a bit of a prima donna. He'd had a very successful career in music hall and, quite rightly, had a very high opinion of himself. There was only one secret with Jon, and that was to treat him with that respect, give way to the little whims that he had, and to arrange for the working day to comply with the occasional request, and not to deliberately just try and make him fall into a schedule you'd drawn up three weeks before. I'm sure a lot of directors do try to do that. They write up a schedule and tell every actor that they are only one of a team and there won't be any social concessions, but I tried very hard to let Jon know I considered him the star of the series, and he was the new Doctor Who and had special privileges.
Pertwee was known for not learning the script and having little notes stuck all over the set with his lines written on...
He never did that with me.
What about ad-libbing?
Yes, there was a problem with ad-libbing, it was there and I had to discipline that. I was a stickler for that. My rule was, if we were to alter the script, then it had to be altered via agreement, in that I would let Barry and the script editor, Terrance Dicks, know what was in our minds as soon as I possibly could, so it was all mutually understood that we weren't just altering the script for the sake of some convenience. Actors sometimes liked to alter lines to make them easier to say, or easier to remember, but in doing so you actually lost some of the individuality of the writer through rephrasing a piece of dialogue. And it’s easy for a director to capitulate. An actor will say, “can I put that word in earlier, as it still makes the same sense,” but it's subtly changing a style, so I was very strongly against it.
Jon Pertwee was a big fan of gadgets. Whose idea was it for him to be chased by Ogrons, while he drove around on a motor trike?
Again, it was written into the script that the Doctor grabbed a machine and took off, with the Ogrons in pursuit. And we had to put our heads together as to whether we had to create a machine, as that would be expensive. Then, one of the props men came back with the news that he'd found these Honda motor trikes in a shop near Pinewood, and that these trikes, which had recently been used in a 007 film, were available for hire. So, I told him, “let’s go for it.”
Did you have any input with the set design?
On every occasion, yes. I mean, you can't lose that. There have been designers who have worked with me who have taken a certain amount of umbrage to the fact that I had a certain reputation and standing in my day, but most find it very helpful. I certainly wouldn't stand in the way of anybody offering creative input and ideas of their own, as long as it falls in with the framework of what I'm asking. Really, I'm like a relay runner. I run with a baton and then I hand it over. And if I run a good length myself, then I expect them to run a good length themselves afterwards. I can help them not waste their energies. One of the faults with designing is working with a director who doesn't know what he wants and doesn't quite understand some of the functional things of building sets and how they look. Some directors are blind, in that they can't see on paper what it's going to look like up on camera, and so a lot of money and effort can be wasted in areas of a set that aren't going to be seen. A designer will still provide those details and those things, not knowing how it's going to be used, and therefore, end up losing the use of some money in areas that are negligible. Obviously, as a director, who has a background in design, I can say categorically don't waste your energies there, and I can draw him a frame that will show him a picture of exactly how I'm going to shoot it. So, obviously in the end he benefits because I'm giving him back money, or in BBC terms, man-hours, because as you probably know, the BBC is built around man-hours, I give him back the man-hours, so he has the ability to use it decoratively elsewhere.
Did you have any say as to the incidental music Dudley Simpson provided, or did you just leave it up to him?
I never left anything up to anybody. I work everything out. Dudley was easy to work with, and I liked his music. I went through the script with him, even before I shot it, and told him where I wanted the emphasis. My one and only criticism of some of his previous music was that it could be a bit heavy and ubiquitous. I wanted to exercise a discipline. I wanted it to only act as exclamation marks to build up the tensions and not to be constantly painting and filling in the background. Of course, a lot of the directors were only too happy to put in a lot of incidental music as it covered a multitude of sins. A lot of sound problems, echoes in the studio, or extraneous noises on location were quite easily covered up with a lot of music. Therefore, it was down to me to be vigilant and not to have any bad sound backgrounds in the areas where I didn't want the music.
Do you know that “Day of the Daleks” has been released on video?
Yes, I do, and when I first heard that it had been commercially released, I phoned the BBC to find out what was in it for me, only to learn, nothing! I then rang up Louis Marks, and he told me he was getting a nice little bundle out of it; then I phoned up Equity and found all the actors were getting a nice little bundle out of it, and then I found out that my union hadn't any agreement. So I get nothing out of it.
Your next Doctor Who story was “The Time Monster”. When did this commission come about?
It was all agreed somewhere along the line. I don't know whether it was before I'd finished on “Day of the Daleks,” or afterwards, but Barry asked me to do another one.
This was a six part story, which meant you had a bigger budget. Did you prefer six parters to four parters?
Not really. The budget was a problem with “Day of the Daleks,” but I much preferred the four part format, because it's a tighter concept. As a director, it's easier to hold one to something that's tight, than to something that's a bit loose. “The Time Monster” was terribly ambitious. I remember being quite frightened by the prospect of taking on something that, to do properly, needed the budget of a Hollywood spectacular. The scenes set in Atlantis required a cast of thousands, but all I had were a few extras. It really was a ridiculously ambitious project.
There was a lot of slow motion and backward filming involved. How difficult was that to realise?
Very difficult on the equipment that was then available. It was very much a worry, and I was very aware that the solution I finally came up with wasn't one that would absolutely convince the viewer. The technology in those days was not like what we have now, and I was shooting on sixteen millimetre film which you could slow down, but only to about half the speed. It was very, very difficult, and I was aware that the final result had a lot of shortcomings.
I thought the end result was pretty convincing.
But I can tell you, I was very nervous about it. One of my solutions was to ask the actors to run on the spot. As long as the composition didn't show the lower part of the body, it looked as if they were running forward.
Why didn't you just film the actors running slowly?
I tried that, but, although it's easy for a cameraman to track at normal speed, to try and track a person running in slow motion is almost impossible, as the coordination is very, very difficult.
Did you find problems when trying to realise the Chronovore?
Yes, I did. Imagine reading on the page something that just says, “the monster comes to life out of a crystal, rises into the air and then swoops down on the terrified population of Atlantis.” And you look at your budget, and know that all you can do it get some actor in a harness, hook him up to some rafters and then swing him around a bit. I was also unhappy with the Minotaur. I mean, it looked exactly like what it was, a fake bulls head slapped on a human body. It doesn't breathe, it doesn't have blood running through and it isn't real, it's totally static. We just didn't have the budget to make it work.
Why didn't you Chromakey the Chronovore?
We did talk about that, but the creature would have looked very flat, static and horribly fake, as any movement would have caused colour bleed. The only solution I came up with was to commit what was a cardinal sin in those days and put something in front of the camera which was peak white. Technically it was wrong for anybody to appear on camera in a white shirt, or white trousers as it made the picture flare. So I decided to put the Chronovore in white sheets, so as to blind the camera. To deliberately create this flare and break up the quality of the picture. And that was the only thing I could do, and it still looked bloody stupid.
The last Doctor Who story you directed was "Frontier in Space." How did this come about?
Well, I can remember vividly saying to Barry that I’d like to do some more, but if it was at all possible I’d like to do something that enabled me to be a little more stylish. I wanted a script that was not only achievable within the budget we had, but which also allowed me, as an ex-designer, to add something more. Now I don't know if "Frontier in Space" was on the cards before my saying that, but that's what I got given, I took the opportunity to make it a much more stylised production. I brought to it this stylised décor, which was calculated to create a very simple background and let the figures dominate the frame. I was very pleased with the finished result. I think, at the end of the day, as a director, what one is aiming for is a particular style of your own. I think that one had more of my own style, and more input probably from me than from the others.
You were also involved with the creation of the Draconians. How did that come about?
I sat down with the script read it three or four times, and tried to imagine what a Draconian would look like. I can’t remember how the script described them, but the tone suggested that they were very upright, very opinionated, very stern, very commanding and very frightening. I finally decided on this reptilian image. I’ve seen a lot of nature films where these animals stick their heads up and look around, and it can appear quite alarming. It was that bony, high-forehead feeling, which also suggested intellect. That's why I gave the Draconians those great domed heads. Anyway, I did a scribble of what I thought it should look like, and promptly took it into Barry and he said, “that’s great. We'll go with that.”
The Draconians also have a strange way of speaking.
Again, I wanted that reptilian look reflected in the way they spoke. So I created this hissing sound, that was both soft and threatening.
"Frontier in Space" ended on a cliffhanger, which led directly into "Planet of the Daleks." Was it ever suggested that you should direct both stories?
That idea was never presented to me, even though, if there were links and continuity to follow through on, it would have made perfect sense for me to have directed both productions. As it stands, though, it was never presented to me as a project. I was never asked to carry on. I think by that time, anyway, I was going on to The Tomorrow People. I think it was already commonly known, and I think there was a little bit of angst, a little bit of aggro going on about that. A little bit of animosity about the fact that I was going to be doing this other science fiction show.
Do you remember on "Frontier," having to direct some new scenes?
Yes, I do. It was all rather hurriedly done at the eleventh hour, without any preparation whatsoever. I was asked to do this while I was in the control room, under stress and running out of time. My working day was coming to an end, and suddenly I was asked to knock these scenes off. I don’t know why to this day.
This was Roger Delgado's last story as the Master. What was he like to work with?
Roger was one of those artists I felt very privileged to have work with. He is in the top ten of my list of both talent and manner. He was a lovely man. Very professional. Nothing was to much to ask for him to do. And yet he was very sensitive, and not at all the assured persona he often created. His assurance came when you gave him space to find it. If you sort of, and I hope I didn't do so, but if one was to pick at him a bit, you felt a little bit of uncertainty started to creep in. The way to work with Roger was to give him time to find himself, and he was a real joy to work with.
As you've already mentioned, the next programme you worked on was The Tomorrow People, for Thames Television. How did that come about?
I was approached by the show's creator Roger Price and asked if I could come in and set everything up. Roger was a very talented writer, but up to this point he had only directed some children’s magazine type programmes, he wasn't a drama director at all, so that's why he didn't attempt to get the show started off himself. So, they were looking for somebody like me to come in and get the ball rolling. I was given quite a lot of freedom to shape the series and bring it to life, and I oversaw all of the first season, which was thirteen episodes long, directing two of the stories myself.
Having directed the opening adventure, were you involved with the casting of the main characters?
I was totally involved with the casting.
Did you have any difficulty in getting decent child actors?
At the time there were quite a few agencies and schools around, more even than there are now, that were teaching drama for youngsters, and I had quite a long period, I had about four weeks and it wasn't a Hobson's Choice by any means. It was quite a struggle to make up my mind as to which had the potential, because unlike adult actors, where you can view something else they've done and make a judgement based on that, with children, unless they've done commercials, or something like that, you've got nothing to go on but your own intuition. And it was always a difficult thing, because it doesn't always mean that the one who had done the best reading, or seemed to be the better actor, was going to be the best one in the studio in front of the cameras.
I understand that Lynne Frederick, who later went on to marry Peter Sellers, was originally up for the part of Carol...
She was indeed, and I came under a lot of pressure to consider Lynne Frederick for that part. She had a good track record, Thames wanted her, everybody wanted her, and she was also the daughter of the head of casting, but I'd also seen this girl Sammie Winmill, and I was convinced that she was right for it. So there I was, trying to establish this new series while at the same time wresting with whether I should go with somebody who everyone said was absolutely brilliant, and has all the right contacts, and which would have everyone patting me on the back and saying that I had made the right decision, or go with someone who had no track record, and to know that only I would be kicked in the goolies if she then didn't work out? In the end I chose Sammie Winmill.
And were you kicked in the goolies?
No, I think she was very welcome, and obviously one of the main strengths of the series.
It's fairly clear that Thames saw The Tomorrow People as a rival to Doctor Who...
They did, but I don't think that was Roger Price's intention. The Tomorrow People was aimed at children, whereas Doctor Who was aimed at a family audience and quite consciously knew that it had an adult following. I remember when the figures for “Day of the Daleks” started coming in, there was much celebration, and I was also very chuffed that we had managed to break through the ten million barrier. But that figure was achieved through appealing to a family audience, whereas The Tomorrow People was based on figures coming back from the children viewing. It was a different mandate.
Did The Tomorrow People have a bigger budget than Doctor Who?
In money terms, yes.
But it didn't look as if it had a bigger budget.
The problem was that Thames had no track record, and still doesn't have any track record in that area of science fiction-type programme-making. We didn't have the scenery, we didn't have the costumes, we didn't have the make-up background. I had to try and take on and teach them all I had picked up from the BBC. That was the problem, there was more money available, but we were starting from scratch, whereas the BBC had it all there already. It was already established. At the BBC it was only a question of honing and improving, it wasn't a question of teaching it from scratch.
I remember there was one scene in “The Slaves of Jedikiah” where actor Michael Standing rode a motorbike off the end of a dock and into a lake. Was that quite expensive to do?
I can't remember it being a problem. I think it was a one-off. You certainly could only do it once! Michael Standing could be a little exuberant, and in a later episode, not one of mine, he was buggering about, fell off his bike and broke his leg.
The villain of that story, Jedikiah, was a shape-changing robot whose original form looked like two cardboard boxes glued together and painted silver. Were you particularly happy with the way that was realised?
Well, as I said earlier, the people providing me with the end product had no track record, and they did the best they could. I can't remember what my reaction to the robot was, but obviously, as a director, it was no good letting them know that I was discontented with it all, or me saying, “if I was at the BBC it would be done twice as good,” you had to just keep riding over it. And if you showed any chinks in your own thinking, if you started believing you were creating something which was bloody awful, that would seep through to other areas. You could be critical, but as long as you could be constructively critical, knowing you could push them a bit further and get this done and get that done, but Thames had a cut-off point. They were doing the best that they could, and you had to know how far you could go, and then turn a blind eye, and saying “okay, that's it. Now let's travel on.” My answer to your question isn't, I made a calculated, “oh, god this is awful, but there's nothing I could do about it,” I know there were a lot of things that I wasn't satisfied with, but I thought in the end it wasn't too bad, and it certainly survived seven years, and, in the beginning, everybody around me, including people back at the BBC were saying it wouldn't last a year.
The second story you directed for The Tomorrow People was “The Vanishing Earth”, and it's one of my favourites. I was particularly impressed with John Woodnutt's performance as the Spidron.
Yes, he was very good, and of course, John had also recently appeared in "Frontier in Space" as the Draconian Emperor. The way the Spidron spoke was a little bit of a pinch from the Draconians, actually. It was one of my hissing noises. Again, it was trying to look for a sound as well as the actor just saying the dialogue. It was a change from being a serpent, reptile sound, to being a spider sound. I told John that it's always a web, that his tongue was creating webs. So, for the Spidron's sound, you must always think that he's creating webs. And that was the motivation I gave him.
Did you watch The Tomorrow People after you left?
Yes, I did. I watched it. I was a little upset that I wasn't asked back. “Money” was my agent’s explanation. That my asking price, and the price they were prepared to pay, didn't match up. It’s a misconception primarily in television right across the board, that something that is popular doesn’t need a lot of talent put into it, and, as a director, you only need to fit into the pattern already established. After I left, they started using a lot of directors who had been trained up in-house, and they were being given The Tomorrow People as their first proper job. So the programme became a training ground for first time directors. And I think the show suffered. I think it suffered from a lack of strength, it suffered from a lack of experience, and it lacked a single dynamic force.
Do you think Roger Price was overworked, in that he wrote all but one of the stories?
Well, I know Roger did eventually get fed up with the show, and they also brought in another producer who I felt handled it wrongly. Also the new children that they chose didn’t have that individuality. To my mind the show went downhill, and the more I felt it was going downhill, the more I thought they were going to give me a call and say, “come back on your white horse and save the day,” but they never did..
Paul Bernard, thank you very much.
And thank you.