Graeme Harper: Directing the Doctor – Review – Headrow House, Leeds

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By David Schuster, September 2021

Graeme Harper, acclaimed television director, is in full flow; a charming and charismatic, yet entirely approachable, figure. He’s relating how, when visiting Derek Jacobi, the actor had kindly provided him with an on-street parking slip. Returning to his car he saw the retreating figure of a traffic warden who had just given him a ticket. “But Derek Jacobi gave me a parking pass!” he remonstrated. “Yeah mate, but he didn’t fill it out correctly,” came the retort. He shrugs and waves his hands in mock exasperation, eyes shining with boyish humour at the memory.

Postponed twice because of Covid-19 restrictions, this is the first Leeds event organised by Who77 Promotions for 18 months. They’ve taken no chances with audience safety, ticket numbers have been kept to half of normal capacity, a warm September breeze blows through the open windows and the responsible attendees are wearing masks as they queue for autographs. Other than that, it’s reassuringly normal; host Chris Hoyle sits on a comfy leather sofa with Harper, behind and between them a large screen shows clips of the director’s work, linked to the conversationally cosy walk through the life and career of our guest for the afternoon.

Harper has a fund of interesting stories gleaned from a lifetime of working his way up through the ranks of television production. He recalls working as a driving instructor in Borehamwood, an ideal position, both because he could take time out to pursue acting opportunities and because at this time it was the centre of British TV production, with no less than nine studios clustered around the village. As such, he was able to form contacts with people in the business such as Iris Rose, production manager of many of the Bond movies and who was, at that point working with Stanley Kubrick for MGM. There’s a lovely moment where with visible emotion he talks of when, a lifetime later, she sent him her driving school appointment card dedicated with the words ‘How is it a lowly driving instructor became the celebrated director of Dr Who?’

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Former Dr Who director, Graeme Harper

“Powerful moment”

The answer to that question is a mixture of persistence, a genuine love for filming action and adventure stories, and sheer hard work. He started as a runner for the BBC in 1966, distributing scripts, notices and other paperwork to the crew, at pace, as the name suggests. By 1969 he was assistant floor manager for the Jon Pertwee era of the Doctor working on, amongst other stories, 1974’s ‘Planet of the Spiders’. It was this story, with its disturbing imagery of giant spiders leaping onto people’s backs, that so scared my 10-year-old self that my parents threatened to stop me watching. By the time Tom Baker took on the starring role, Graeme was production assistant, right hand man to the position he aspired to. Finally, the BBC put him onto their in-house director’s course, after he helped them out by taking on much of the role whilst they were having issues with production at that time. It says much of the labyrinthian thinking at the BBC that they were providing such training whilst having a policy of only hiring freelance resource. So, having graduated from the course in 1982, he was faced with the requirement to resign, only to be re-hired once again by the corporation!

One of the pleasures of these events however, is that the guests have invariably worked across a range of other programs. Harper has always gravitated towards action/adventure, but this encompassed popular series such as Boon, Bergerac, Juliet Bravo, Casualty and EastEnders. His credits also include the legendary 50th anniversary special of Coronation Street, with its unforgettable climax where the tram crashes off the viaduct, crushing buildings and residents in its path. In this, he was instrumental in the powerful moment when veteran actor William Roache stands alone, looking aghast across the wreckage of the street.

There are always interesting insights into television production at these events. Graeme explains the differences between using multiple cameras, and subsequently editing the results together, as was traditionally done for BBC tv dramas, and using a single camera, as is the case in the film industry. He is a vocal enthusiast of the latter technique, but he put this experience to good use when working with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith on the Inside No. 9 Christmas special, ‘The Devil of Christmas’. For this darkly comic pastiche of Tales of the Unexpected, the duo wanted the program to have the retro feel of 1970’s costume dramas. Harper achieved this by use of the now outdated multi-camera technique with vintage equipment.

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“Love of the job”

Graeme has the distinction of being the only director to work on Doctor Who prior to its cancellation in 1989 and again when it was re-booted in 2005 by Russell T Davies, a man whom he describes as a tour de force. With typical self-effacing humour he says, “I knew I’d never get back on it, because I’m an old git!” Indeed, he wasn’t chosen to direct Season 1 of the regenerated series but had the good fortune to work with Davies on action-adventure spoof ‘The Flashing Blade’. After that, he wrote to Davies asking to be given a single show and was granted four. That became a mammoth 52-day shoot, the longest ever block of filming for that production. He then went on to direct nine more stories.

He clearly continues to love his association with the series, beaming when someone in the audience points out that, according to Whovian canon, he is the only director to have actually been one of the Doctors, albeit for a brief moment. He explains “In 1976, when we were filming ‘The Brain of Morbius’, for the mental battle scene they used photographs of the crew to represent past incarnations flashing across his memory.” These pictures included Harper, then a production assistant. It is this love of the job that has made him great, and which makes him such an entertaining speaker.

Who77 Promotions are wisely anticipating a tightening of Covid-19 restrictions over the autumn and winter period, and so the next event is only provisionally scheduled for April 2022. That’s something to look forward to!

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