WHO WAS VERITY LAMBERT? – Tansy Rayner Roberts
“For any woman there has to be luck,” she told one journalist at the height of her career, “and after that there is what you do with it.”
Verity Lambert’s obituary in the Telegraph, 2007
In 1963, 28-year old Verity was the youngest ever producer at the BBC, and only female producer in Drama when she was handed the reins to the brand new family programme, Doctor Who. Along with the young West Indian director, Waris Hussain, who got the job because he was the most junior director at the BBC, and the brash Canadian with the big ideas, Sydney Newman, Verity made history. Nearly 50 years later, Doctor Who has an enduring legacy that can’t be compared to any other television show.
Despite an immensely privileged education at Roedean and the Sorbonne, Verity had started out as a shorthand typist, and worked her way up through the admin ranks before making it as a production assistant, where she famously argued and fought for her opinions with her bosses, and somehow still managed to get promoted to producer! (though as she admitted in an interview, she wanted to be a director, and simply couldn’t get into it because of her gender)
“I couldn’t even get arrested in that area, though. I gave myself a year to either move out of being a production assistant, or move out of television altogether. Within that year, Sydney Newman went to the BBC. He rang me up out of the blue and told me there was a new children’s series, and did I want to come and meet the head of department, Donald Wilson?”
Verity Lambert, 2004 interview with Dreamwatch
There’s an infamous picture of Verity using one of the Mechanoid props to light her cigarette, which may tell you a lot about her personality! She was the one who fought to keep the Daleks in the show, when her bosses were determined not to allow “bug-eyed monsters” in what was supposed to be an educational programme. And, of course, she was correct.
But being correct and good isn’t always enough to get ahead in any industry, let alone television, and Verity had to argue for her right to do her job on a regular basis – even William Hartnell, the show’s first lead actor, was dubious at first that such a young woman could be a capable producer.
Over the next two years, Verity Lambert proved him wrong. From An Unearthly Child (1963) through to Mission to the Unknown (1965), she shaped the programme in its early days, contributing to the television legend that is Doctor Who.
“Every time we changed the serial, we made our own rules. It was very creative for directors; if they wanted to be creative within the £2,000 a week budget we had, they had the opportunity. The costume designers, too, were so creative and clever within a very restrictive budget. Marco Polo was wonderful. It’s so sad that it’s gone. What we achieved within that ludicrous budget was incredible.”
Verity Lambert, 2004 interview with Dreamwatch
After leaving the BBC, Verity formed her own production company and continued to make interesting, high quality television (and occasional films) under the brand Cinema Verity.
Fans tend to only think about Verity’s involvement in Doctor Who in those crucial first three years, but she also produced and/or created all kinds of amazing, groundbreaking television, from Rumpole of the Bailey and The Naked Civil Servant to Jonathan Creek. You certainly can’t pigeonhole her work as being obviously female-oriented – indeed, she often worked on supremely “masculine” shows such as The Sweeney or Minder – but she also provided and supported some fantastic roles for actresses, such as Joanna Lumley in Class Act and Caroline Quentin in Jonathan Creek. In 1974, she even made a drama about the women of the suffragette movement, featuring Sian Phillips and Patricia Quinn. – Shoulder to Shoulder
The last shows that Verity produced before she died in 2007 were costume drama The Cazalets featuring a young Hugh Bonneville, and the sitcom Love Soup, featuring Tamsin Greig and Sheridan Smith. Having received the OBE in 2002, she had been due to receive a lifetime award at the Women In Film and Television Awards only a few weeks after she passed away.
“Verity was a total one-off. She was a magnificently, madly, inspirationally talented drama producer… She made the television drama genre utterly her own. She was deaf to the notion of compromise and there wasn’t an actor, writer, director or television executive she worked with who didn’t regard her with admiration, respect and awe.”
Jane Tranter, Controller of BBC Drama, quoted in the Guardian obituary.
Comments on: "Our Inspiration" (3)
In the interview Verity L is mentioned as only 27. Which is really correct?
It looks like she was born in November of 1935, and she arrived at the BBC in June of 1963, so she was 27 when she took over the show, but she turned 28 four days after Doctor Who premiered. (If my math is correct…)
Just one small correction. Waris Hussain is British-Indian – born in India, not a West Indian.