Former Doctor Who actor Sylvester McCoy has claimed that left-wing scriptwriters used to weave propaganda into the stories to try to undermine Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.
The revelation appears in today’s Sunday Times, where McCoy says, “The idea of bringing politics into Doctor Who was deliberate, but we had to do it very quietly and certainly didn’t shout about it.”
He continues: “We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. At the time Doctor Who used satire to put political messages out there in the way they used to do in places like Czechoslovakia. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered. Those who wanted to see the messages saw them; others, including one producer, didn’t.”
The right-leaning paper says McCoy’s revelation will reinforce suspicions about “antipathy within the corporation to Thatcher’s government.” Norman (now Lord) Tebbit, then the Tory Party chairman, said at the time that the BBC was in the hands of a “Marxist mafia.”
It was just seven months after Thatcher’s government was elected in 1987 for its third term.
“In the end,” says the Sunday Times, “unlike the so-called velvet revolution in Prague, the ‘TARDIS revolution’ failed. Reviewers have since spotted the obvious parodies of Thatcher but audiences hardly noticed the subversion at the time and, if they did, it was a turn-off. Viewers left the programme in droves and Doctor Who was shelved before Thatcher was forced to resign in 1990.
The show’s script editor at the time was Andrew Cartmel, who, the paper says, confirmed that there was an anti-Thatcher slant.
“He said last week that [the late] John Nathan-Turner, who produced the show throughout the 1980s, had asked him during his job interview what he hoped to achieve in the post,” says the paper, quoting Cartmel as saying: “My exact words were: ‘I’d like to overthrow the government.’ I was a young firebrand and I wanted to answer honestly. I was very angry about the social injustice in Britain under Thatcher and I’m delighted that came into the show.”
The story continues: “He assembled a number of ‘angry young writers’ to produce storylines that they hoped would foment anti-Thatcher dissent. They included Ben Aaronovitch, son of the late Marxist intellectual Sam Aaronovitch, and Rona Munro, who went on to become a scriptwriter for Ken Loach, the socialist film-maker.
“Under Cartmel’s direction, Thatcher was caricatured as Helen A, the wide-eyed tyrannical ruler of a human colony on the planet Terra Alpha.”
This was a Who story called “The Happiness Patrol”, in which Helen A was played by Sheila Hancock, widow of John Thaw, star of The Sweeney and later Inspector Morse, who died in 2002.
This story began in November 1988, the week that Thatcher was filmed waltzing with President Ronald Reagan in the White House.
The paper says: “The following year Cartmel wrote an emotive speech for the Doctor about the evils of nuclear weapons. It borrowed heavily from material obtained from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was a persistent thorn in the side of the government.”
Cartmel said he and his colleagues did their best to make sure that the then controller of BBC1, Jonathan Powell, did not become aware of what they were doing. “The BBC certainly would not have liked any hint of political axe-grinding,” he said.
The paper quotes the BBC as saying: “We’re baffled by these claims. The BBC’s impartiality rules applied just as strongly then as they do to programmes now.”
The next actor to take on the role of the Doctor is Matt Smith, who takes over from tenth Doctor David Tennant. His first story is set to air in the spring.