Monday, 26 August 2013

'Who And Me': Former producer Barry Letts's audiobook review

by Shannon Lush

As an old-school Whovian, I am well accustomed to searching high and low for 'Doctor Who' goodies. Pulling tatty copies of  'Doctor Who' comic books from dusty boxes at comic shops, finding a battered and weather-beaten Mel action figure from a garage sale, and traveling on two buses across two cities in order to track down Target novelizations are all escapades I've endured, and enjoyed, to build a humble collection of merchandise. Canada in the 1980s and 1990s was not a country overflowing with 'Doctor Who' merchandise, and Whovians worth their salt hunted like Slitheens high and low for whatever they could unearth.

That is why, in this modern age of the new series and with merchandise overflowing from the same locations locally that once wouldn't afford shelf space to 'Doctor Who' whatsoever, the rise of the Internet has become a God-send. DVDs, Blu-Rays, comics, figures, fiction and nonfiction books...anything can be had, for a price, no matter how far away it is in the world and how far a Whovian is from it. Distance no longer matters. As a Whovian most interested in the Classic Series, it was with a true sense of accomplishment and appreciation that I acquired 'Who And Me', the audiobook by Barry Letts, producer of  'Doctor Who' during the Jon Pertwee era, and the man who Tom Baker credits with being the deciding factor in casting him for the role.

My exposure to audiobooks is limited; as much as I am a podcaster myself and a podcast enthusiast, I have mainly stuck to physical books for my entertainment. My spoken book experience has been strictly limited to fiction, such as 'Star Trek' Pocket Books read by the likes of James Doohan (in bravura performances portraying virtually all the parts), and in terms of 'Doctor Who', it's been such works as 'The Paradise Of Death' audioplay (ironically written by Letts), and 'Slipback' with Colin Baker. Nonfiction audiobooks have previously eluded me and it's thus a joy to gain entry to it through 'Doctor Who'.

'Who And Me' is part autobiography, part 'Doctor Who' tell-all. Barry Letts was a former actor of many years in England prior to transitioning to director, and finally producer. The audiobook is composed of 7 chapters of between 30 and 45 minutes duration, and is read in full by Letts himself, often imitating the voices of other actors, directors, and BBC big wigs in the pursuit of telling his stories. To begin with, Letts glosses over his early years, his upbringing, and his time served in World War Two into no more than a few brief words; obviously, this material was extant in the original book version and truncated for the audiobook version, where space is at a premium. As such, the listener is immediately deprived of what is, arguably, the best element of an audiobook, which is listening to a person recount their own life story from their point of view. Nevertheless, Letts' honesty regarding his own life choices, mistakes he felt he made along the path to his chosen career as an actor in post-war England, coupled with a genuine warmth, good humour, and dry wit, compensate for the loss of the material regarding his early life. The listener is struck by how personable, funny, and engaging Letts was as a person.

As a friend to Patrick Troughton prior to the latter accepting the role of the Doctor, Letts both acted alongside him in plays and early British television series, as well as advised him during his time as the Doctor, as Letts by this point had no professional association with 'Doctor Who' other than as a casual viewer. As such, Letts intimates that it was he who suggested Troughton do the show for only three years. Perhaps this is true, as Letts states it rather matter-of-factly, perhaps it is an exaggeration given Troughton's well-known stance against typecasting is now embedded into Whovian lore; it suffices that Letts establishes himself as a level-headed and sensible person when recounting his conversations with Troughton regarding this period, traits that he would later bring to producing the series itself.

Casting about for a way in which he could continue in show business while acting offers began drying up, Letts began dabbling in writing, producing several screenplays and scripts for a variety of TV series, and eventually struck upon the notion of directing. Lett's mirth and joy over discussing this period in his life, where he drastically changed occupations against all odds and the advice of most of his friends and colleagues, is among the more entertaining portions of the audiobook, chiefly as Letts begins to clash with other directors and BBC big wigs by this point, and frequently acts out the parts of both he and the other person in several arguments. His acting background comes to the forefront here, and it all becomes highly entertaining to listen to.

It was at this point that 'Doctor Who' re-enters Lett's life, as he accepts an assignment to direct his friend Troughton in the episode 'The Enemy Of The World', considered to this day to be one of the most bizarre Second Doctor stories, heavily influenced by the 'James Bond' films of the time, so much so that much of the equipment, vehicles, and gadgets seen in the episode were literally rented or borrowed from the Bond production offices. Letts, a novice director, admits to a great deal of the blame for the uneven pacing and inappropriate 'action movie'-style context of the episode, given neither the budget nor the relative sophistication of the cameras were up to the task of replicating Bond and filtering it through a 'Doctor Who' episode. He also admits that Troughton pushed him to play Salamander, the Doctor's tin-pot dictator double, and Letts relented out of friendship to Troughton despite the ham-fisted nature of televised 'evil double' stories being an obvious sign that people were running out of ideas on a given TV series.

With the negative experience of  'Enemy' out of the way, Letts goes on to describe how a series of random coincidences led him to not only be named the producer of 'Doctor Who', but to have a major hand in casting Jon Pertwee as The Doctor, and in this phase of the audiobook the listener feels they are getting their money's worth. He begins by detailing his personal belief in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, world-views that filtered their way into several Pertwee stories of his producer era and which even today remain somewhat controversial for being out-of-place in a SF drama series generally aimed at children. It is evident that his discourses on the benefits of Enlightenment are only touched on here and are further explored in depth in the actual printed edition of the book. Take that for what you will; Letts himself explains that time constraints prevent him from espousing further on the matter, and resigns himself to merely defending the practice of introducing new storyline ideas based on his own interests.

Letts gives fresh insight into classic Pertwee stories such as 'The Claws Of Axos' and especially the perennial fan-favourite 'The Daemons'. He reveals that 'The Daemons' was based originally on the audition piece he wrote for actresses being considered for the companion role eventually developed into the Jo Grant character, and eventually played by Katy Manning. He praises Terrance Dicks as an excellent story editor, a fine idea man, and a good co-worker, and was proud of his close professional relationship with Dicks, feeling that when the producer and story editor on a TV series are of like-minds, then the production is harmonized and will produce quality episodes.

In contrast to his relationship with Dicks, Letts makes several back-handed digs at Pertwee himself. While he recounts several heart-warming male-bonding moments, such as Pertwee telling Letts the story of his pain and sadness that his father, the renowned playwright Roland Pertwee, did not take the time to see his son perform in a play in which he was receiving rave reviews early in his acting career, the bulk of the audiobook finds Letts chiding Pertwee for acting as somewhat of a prima donna, insisting on using BBC staffers and vehicles for his own personal use and for being paranoid of Roger Delgado's Master character 'outshining' the Doctor. Perhaps the most revealing story involves Letts arriving at a public appearance in which Pertwee had commanded a high pay-day to appear. Pertwee's dismissive attitude to Letts throughout the day led a woman to assume Letts was nothing more than Pertwee's assistant. When she inquired as to what Letts was doing there, he replied haughtily 'Madam, I am Mr Pertwee's EMPLOYER'. Even with the passage of time, Letts is noticeably bitter towards Pertwee as he tells this particular story.

Letts also admits that several of the elements that simply did not work for him as director of 'Enemy Of The World' he recycled as producer and introduced into the Pertwee era, notably the 'action-hero' format and the obvious 'James Bond' flourishes of The Doctor, with his Venusian Aikido, love for gadgets, and the M16-surragate UNIT. Outside of his often-strained relationship with his star actor, Letts speaks warmly of the supporting cast, especially Roger Delgado, with whom he personally cast as The Master and with whom he performed in his acting days. Letts takes the time to acknowledge the hard work of the HAVOC stunt team, who were the 'real' UNIT officers of the series, routinely risking their lives to perform dangerous and spectacular stunts for often little pay and virtually no credit.

On its own, 'Who And Me' the audiobook is chock-full of funny stories, revealing trivia and jocular anecdotes of one man's experiences as producer of a BBC series that often suffered from lack of budget and always seemed to be subject to BBC scrutiny at the editing and censoring stages. Letts reserves most of his professional animosity for particular BBC big-wigs who made production difficult for one reason or other.

Letts' rich voice and ability to perform dual roles as the narrator and character, as well as giving voice to the numerous well-known 'Doctor Who' actors who permeate the era, always increases the enjoy ability factor of each tale. The only niggling disappointments to be found here is the feeling that the print version of the book contains much more material than the audiobook, and thus the audiobook experience feels like one is hearing the companion piece to a much larger work, akin to listening to the director's commentary without watching the actual movie first. Also, on a personal level, I felt that as it is mostly superfluous to the rest of the audiobook and to the tone and type of stories Letts tells, the entire segment regarding Buddhism and philosophy ought to have been excised, or replaced with more material about either 'Doctor Who' or Lett's acting career. To skim over Lett's early life and upbringing, relevant information that helps to understand a person's personality and outlook, and yet retain up to half an hour of meaningless chatter about Buddhism, was in my opinion a big mistake.

On the whole, Barry Lett's 'Who And Me' is quite enjoyable, rife with the type of insider information that Whovians will marvel at. This well-regarded period of 'Doctor Who' history is recreated and revisited by one of the few individuals who helped to shape it, and this was well worth tracking down. Barry Letts passed away several years ago and there remains a sadness about the notion of listening to a man discuss some of his most important life's work and fondest memories when the listener is aware he is now deceased. Nevertheless, for Whovians new and old, who want to know more about the Jon Pertwee era and especially those interested in the production of a television series, this is a highly recommended audiobook. Now to locate the print version for the rest of the story!

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