People Elevated to God-like Status: two new members

People elevated to God-like status logo

Time to induct two new members to the group of people elevated to God-like status: Douglas Camfield and Graeme Harper. They’re not especially well known names, except within a certain group of (charitably) TV aficionados or (less charitably) geeks. But they are two of the best directors Doctor Who and possibly British TV has ever seen.

Now it would be unfair to say that early Doctor Who didn’t have very good direction. Directed by Waris Hussein, the opening episode, An Unearthly Child, was a particularly splendid piece of work: whenever Anna and I talk about how flat some episodes have looked, I at least am thinking of An Unearthly Child as an example of how well lit and directed Doctor Who can be (Anna can tell you what she’s thinking about!).

Here below is the opening to the world’s longest running sci-fi series. Imagine it’s 1963. Kid’s TV has been Muffin the Mule and Bill and Ben. There are no synthesisers, special effects or anything else on television. Then this hits the scene at Saturday tea time. Just how severely blown away would you have been?

But post-Unearthly Child, it all went a bit flat. After all, we’re talking about a show that initially had to put out a new episode every week, all year round, with no budget, no time, no real ability to do re-takes if scenes messed up and technical issues aplenty. It’s a miracle the sets stayed up.

Douglas Camfield was one of the first to change that.

A production assistant on An Unearthly Child and Marco Polo, Camfield went on to direct many other stories: Planet of Giants, The Crusade, The Time Meddler, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Web of Fear, The Invasion, Inferno, Terror of the Zygons, and The Seeds of Doom.

Certainly, The Web of Fear is a masterpiece of direction, lighting and sound (even if the acting was a bit dodgy at times). Pre-empting Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by over a decade and shaming Murray Gold before he was even born, Camfield chose Bartok’s “Music for strings” as the soundtrack to this particularly scary moment, which re-introduced the London Underground-conquering Yeti to a terrified audience.

I remember showing a VHS version of Terror of the Zygons to my sister during our teenage years, back when Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor, and it was this moment that made her ask me “Why isn’t Doctor Who this good now?”. I can well understand why: Douglas Camfield wasn’t directing it any more. For the unenlightened, the man at the centre of the intrigue is Harry Sullivan, one of the Doctor’s few male companions, last seen in a photo on the wall of Sarah Jane’s study in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

After The Seeds of Doom, Camfield went over to ITV to direct shows like The Professionals. However, he was never to return to Doctor Who – a heart condition that had manifested itself when he was younger was eventually to take his life in the mid-80s. He’ll be sorely missed.

Graeme Harper, a former child actor who went on to become assistant floor manager on Doctor Who, was the man who inherited Camfield’s mantle. After sending himself on a BBC directors’ training course, his debut job as a freelance director (post Angels) was on the last of Peter Davison’s stories, the Dune-esque The Caves of Androzani. He did such a great job, Androzani is regularly voted the best Doctor Who story ever made, and even made Davison wonder if he was doing the right thing in leaving.

If you’ve never seen it, buy the DVD now, because it’s certainly one of the finest, bleakest stories the show has ever seen. Eight-year-olds would probably hate it, but it’s brilliant.

How can I list the ways? Was it Harper’s refusal to equip his villains with ray guns, instead spending valuable budget on automatic weapons? Was it the choice of lighting, angles, or one of the other thousand things that make Androzani so incredible to look at and so taut? Was it even his decision to allow his actors to do things like this?

Then, of course, there was that wonderful regeneration sequence, the best of them all, in fact. Here’s the scene, with some footage of Harper actually filming it.

Whatever it was, it was no fluke. He exerted his considerable powers to turn Revelation of the Daleks into the only Colin Baker story that could possibly be called a classic, using scenes like these two that I’ve sandwiched together:

But he then moved on to other things. Star Cops, until Harper’s arrival mid-season, had been a brightly lit piece of typical 80s BBC sci-fi (in every other aspect of production, from scripts to acting, it excelled though), as The Cult Of… Star Cops explained recently.

He’s spent the last 20 years as a jobbing director and is one of the most sought-after in the industry. In 1993, he was scheduled to direct The Dark Dimension, a thirtieth anniversary Doctor Who story that never got made. But he finally returned to Doctor Who last year. While Age of Steel and his other stories lacked the old Harper style, this year’s 42 was more or less rescued from being merely average and converted into a near-classic by some stupendous work on Harper’s work. Lighting, direction, style, skill: all showed Harper’s touch. He’s a God:


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.