Friday, November 23, 2007

Verity Lambert, 1935-2007

Verity, left, with actress Carol Ann Ford
The death of Verity Lambert comes nearly fourty-four years to the day after the first airing of the first episode of DOCTOR WHO, the show Lambert helped usher into the world, producing for the first two years of its run and setting the direction it would take through its run. Having such a key role in the birth of what would become a British institution would be enough of a feather in one’s cap, but Lambert was also the BBC’s first female producer, the youngest to ever take charge of a series (WHO started when she was 27), and was active for decades, also behind JOHNATHAN CREEK, REILLY: ACE OF SPIES, and the film CLOCKWISE. I’m going to talk mostly about DOCTOR WHO because that’s what I know, but Lambert was arguably one of the most respected women in British TV.

Though the idea for WHO came from Sydney Newman, Lambert was instrumental in developing the series, overruling him on some key decisions. (The Daleks, whose instant success guaranteed the show would survive past a first season, were included despite Newman’s protests that these were exactly the sort of bug-eyed monsters he didn’t want the show to have.) In the show’s earliest years, Lambert would effectively crystalize the show’s atmosphere and tone, elements that would persist despite numerous changes in creative direction. Though ostensibly a “children’s show”, WHO was produced by the drama department, and Lambert made sure that the show aimed at serious science fiction adventure, not dumbed down but still accessible. The show was always produced on a low budget, but Lambert always managed to stretch it beyond what you’d expect- even the most threadbare stories, like the season two finale THE CHASE, are visually creative, and stories like THE AZTECS and THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH are downright epic. The show quickly established a tense, mysterious atmosphere, which keeps the stories compelling even when the monsters are heaps of fabric. It’s possibly this quality that gained the show the reputation of sending kids behind the sofa; as much as scaring children is looked down on by society, the works that stay with us as we grow older are inevitably the ones we found just a bit terrifying. Lambert knew and appreciated this.

Lambert moved on to a very long career, working as late as this year on the show LOVE SOUP. For her work she has received an OBE, several BAFTA awards and an Australian Film Insitute award (for EVIL ANGELS, best known here as A CRY IN THE DARK.) It’s to her credit that something as big as DOCTOR WHO is merely one chapter in her career, but it’s perhaps especially gratifying that Lambert lived long enough to see the show return from a 16-year-hiatus to become as big as it has ever been, and still effectively the show she helped create. It wouldn’t have been anything without her, and perhaps the best thing that can be said of anyone in the art and entertainment business is that they created something which brought joy to millions and continues to do so to this day. She was quite a woman, and may she rest in peace.

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