Dec 20, 2007
Verity Ann Lambert, OBE (27 November 1935 – 22 November 2007) was an English television and film producer. She is best known as the founding producer of the science-fiction series Doctor Who, a programme which has become a part of British popular culture.
Lambert began working in television in the 1950s, and continued to work as a producer up until the year she died. After leaving the BBC in 1969, she worked for other television companies, notably Thames Television and Euston Films in the 1970s and 80s. She also worked in the film industry, for Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, and from 1985 ran her own production company, Cinema Verity. In addition to Doctor Who, she produced Adam Adamant Lives!, The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies, Minder, Widows, G.B.H., Jonathan Creek and Love Soup.
The British Film Institute's Screenonline website describes Lambert as "one of those producers who can often create a fascinating small screen universe from a slim script and half-a-dozen congenial players." The website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications hails her as "not only one of Britain's leading businesswomen, but possibly the most powerful member of the nation's entertainment industry ... Lambert has served as a symbol of the advances won by women in the media". News of her death came on the 44th anniversary of the first showing of Doctor Who.
Lambert was born in London, the daughter of a Jewish accountant, and educated at Roedean School. She left Roedean at sixteen and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris for a year, and at a secretarial college in London for eighteen months. She later credited her interest in the structural and characterisational aspects of scriptwriting to an inspirational English teacher. Lambert's first job was typing menus at the Kensington De Vere Hotel, which employed her because she had been to France and could speak French. In 1956, she entered the television industry as a secretary at Granada Television's press office. She was sacked from this job after six months.
Following her dismissal from Granada, Lambert took a job as a shorthand typist at ABC Television. She soon became the secretary to the company's Head of Drama, and then a production secretary working on a programme called State Your Case. She then moved from administration to production, working on drama programming on ABC's popular anthology series Armchair Theatre. Armchair Theatre was overseen at the time by the company's new Head of Drama, Canadian producer Sydney Newman.
On 28 November 1958, while Lambert was working as a production assistant on Armchair Theatre, actor Gareth Jones died off-screen just prior to a scene in which he was to appear during a live television broadcast of the hour-long play "Underground". Lambert had to take control of directing the cameras from the studio gallery as director William Kotcheff hastily worked with the actors during a commercial break to accommodate the loss.
In 1961 Lambert left ABC, spending a year working as the personal assistant to American television producer David Susskind at the independent production company Talent Associates in New York. Returning to England, she rejoined ABC with an ambition to direct, but got stuck as a production assistant, and decided that if she could not find advancement within a year she would abandon television as a career.
In December 1962 Sydney Newman left ABC to take up the position of Head of Drama at BBC Television, and the following year Lambert joined him at the Corporation. Newman had recruited her to produce Doctor Who, a programme he had personally initiated. Conceived by Newman as an educational science-fiction series for children, the programme concerned the adventures of a crotchety old man travelling through space and time with his sometimes unwilling companions in a machine larger on the inside than the out. The show was a risk, and in some quarters not expected to last longer than thirteen weeks.
Although Lambert was not Newman's first choice to produce the series — Don Taylor and Shaun Sutton had both declined the position — the Canadian was very keen to ensure that Lambert took the job after his experience of working with her at ABC. "I think the best thing I ever did on that was to find Verity Lambert," he told Doctor Who Magazine in 1993. "I remembered Verity as being bright and, to use the phrase, full of piss and vinegar! She was gutsy and she used to fight and argue with me, even though she was not at a very high level as a production assistant."
When Lambert arrived at the BBC in June 1963, she was initially given a more experienced associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, to assist her. Doctor Who debuted on 23 November 1963 and quickly became a success for the BBC, chiefly on the popularity of the alien creatures known as Daleks. Lambert's superior, Head of Serials Donald Wilson, had strongly advised against using the script in which the Daleks first appeared, but after the serial's successful airing, he said that Lambert clearly knew the series far better than he did, and he would no longer interfere in her decisions. The success of Doctor Who and the Daleks also garnered press attention for Lambert herself; in 1964, the Daily Mail published a feature on the series focusing on the perceived attractiveness of its young producer: "The operation of the Daleks ... is conducted by a remarkably attractive young woman called Verity Lambert who, at 28, is not only the youngest but the only female drama producer at B.B.C. TV... [T]all, dark and shapely, she became positively forbidding when I suggested that the Daleks might one day take over Dr. Who."
Lambert oversaw the first two seasons of the programme, eventually leaving in 1965. "There comes a time when a series need new input," she told Doctor Who Magazine thirty years later. "It's not that I wasn't fond of Doctor Who, I simply felt that the time had come. It had been eighteen very concentrated months, something like seventy shows. I know people do soaps forever now, but I felt Doctor Who needed someone to come in with a different view."
She moved on to produce another BBC show created by Newman, the swashbuckling action-adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–67). The long development period of Adam Adamant delayed its production, and during this delay Newman gave her the initial episodes of a new soap opera, The Newcomers, to produce. Further productions for the BBC included a season of the crime drama Detective (1968–69) and a twenty-six-part series of adaptations of the stories of William Somerset Maugham (1969). During this period, Lambert was obscurely referenced in Monty Python’s 1969 sketch "Buying a Bed," which featured two shop assistants called Mr. Verity and Mr. Lambert, named after her.
In 1969 she left the staff of the BBC to join London Weekend Television, where she produced Budgie (1970–72) and Between the Wars (1973). In 1974, she returned to the BBC on a freelance basis to produce Shoulder to Shoulder, a series of six 75-minute plays about the suffragette movement of the early 20th century.
Later in 1974 Lambert became Head of Drama at Thames Television, a successor company of her former employers ABC. During her time in this position she oversaw several high-profile and successful contributions to the ITV network, including The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Rock Follies (1976–77), Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–92) and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978). In 1976 she was also made responsible for overseeing the work of Euston Films, Thames' subsidiary film production company, at the time best known as the producers of The Sweeney. In 1979 she transferred to Euston full-time as the company's Chief Executive, overseeing productions such as Quatermass (1979), Minder (1979–94) and Widows (1983).
At Thames and Euston, Lambert enjoyed the most sustained period of critical and popular success of her career. The Naked Civil Servant won a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for its star John Hurt as well as a Broadcasting Press Guild Award and a prize at the Prix Italia; Rock Follies won a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award, while Widows also gained BAFTA nominations and ratings of over 12 million — unusually for a drama serial, it picked up viewers over the course of its six-week run. Minder went on to become the longest-running series produced by Euston Films, surviving for over a decade following Lambert's departure from the company.
Television historian Lez Cooke described Lambert's time in control of the drama department at Thames as "an adventurous period for the company, demonstrating that it was not only the BBC that was capable of producing progressive television drama during the 1970s. Lambert wanted Thames to produce drama series 'which were attempting in one way or another to tackle modern problems and life,' an ambition which echoed the philosophy of her mentor Sydney Newman." Howard Schuman, the writer of Rock Follies, also later praised the bravery of Lambert's commissioning. "Verity Lambert had just arrived as head of drama at Thames TV and she went for broke," he told The Observer newspaper in 2002. "She commissioned a serial, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, for safety, but also Bill Brand, one of the edgiest political dramas ever, and us... Before we had even finished making the first series, Verity commissioned the second."
Lambert's association with Thames and Euston Films continued into the 1980s. In 1982, she rejoined the staff of parent company Thames Television as Director of Drama, and was given a seat on the company's board. In November 1982 she left Thames, but remained as Chief Executive at Euston until November of the following year, to take up her first post in the film industry, as Director of Production for Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment. Her job here was somewhat frustrating as the British film industry was in one of its periodic states of flux, but she did manage to produce some noteworthy features, including the 1986 John Cleese film Clockwise.
Lambert later expressed some regret on her time in the film industry in a feature for The Independent newspaper. "Unfortunately, the person who hired me left, and the person who came in didn't want to produce films and didn't want me. While I managed to make some films I was proud of — Dennis Potter's Dreamchild, and Clockwise with John Cleese — it was terribly tough and not a very happy experience."
In late 1985 Lambert left Thorn EMI, frustrated at the lack of success and at restructuring measures being undertaken by the company. She established her own independent production company, Cinema Verity. The company's first production was the 1988 feature film A Cry in the Dark, starring Sam Neill and Meryl Streep and based on the "dingo baby" case in Australia. Cinema Verity's first television series, the BBC1 sitcom May to December, debuted in 1989 and ran until 1994. The company also produced another successful BBC1 sitcom, So Haunt Me, which ran from 1992 to 1994.
Lambert executive produced Alan Bleasdale's hard-hitting drama serial G.B.H. for Channel 4 in 1991, winning critical acclaim and several awards. Lambert's relationship with Bleasdale was not entirely smooth, however — the writer has admitted in subsequent interviews that he "wanted to kill Verity Lambert" after she insisted on the cutting of large portions of his first draft script before production began. However, Bleasdale subsequently admitted that she was right about the majority of the cut material, and when the production was finished he only missed one small scene from those she had demanded be excised.
A less successful Cinema Verity production, and the most noted mis-step of Lambert's career, was the soap opera Eldorado, a co-production with the BBC set in a British expatriate community in Spain. At the time it was the most expensive commission the BBC had given out to an independent production company. Launched with a major publicity campaign and running in a high-profile slot three nights a week on BBC1, the series was critically mauled and lasted only a year, from 1992 to 1993. Lambert's biography at Screenonline suggests some reasons for this failure: "With on-location production facilities and an evident striving for a genuinely contemporary flavour, Lambert's costly Euro soap Eldorado suggested a degree of ambition ... which it seemed in the event ill-equipped to realise, and a potentially interesting subject tailed off into implausible melodrama. Eldorado's plotting ... was disappointingly ponderous. As a result, the expatriate community in southern Spain theme and milieu was exploited rather than explored." Other reviewers, even the best part of a decade after the programme's cancellation, were much harsher, with Rupert Smith's comments in The Guardian in 2002 being a typical example. "A £10 million farce that left the BBC with egg all over its entire body and put an awful lot Equity members back on the dole... it will always be remembered as the most expensive flop of all time."
In the early 1990s, Lambert attempted to win the rights to produce Doctor Who independently for the BBC; however, this effort was unsuccessful because the Corporation was already in negotiations with producer Philip Segal in the United States. Cinema Verity projects that did reach production included Sleepers (BBC1, 1991) and The Cazalets (BBC One, 2001), the latter co-produced by actress Joanna Lumley, whose idea it was to adapt the novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Lambert continued to work as a freelance producer outside of her own company. She produced the popular BBC One comedy-drama series Jonathan Creek, by writer David Renwick, ever since taking over the role for its second series in 1998. From then until 2004 she produced eighteen episodes of the programme across four short seasons, plus two Christmas Specials. She and Renwick also collaborated on another comedy-drama, Love Soup, starring Tamsin Greig and transmitted on BBC One in the autumn of 2005.
In 1973, Lambert married television director Colin Bucksey (a man ten years her junior), but the marriage collapsed in 1984, and they divorced in 1987. She had no children, once telling an interviewer, "I can't stand babies — no, I love babies as long as their parents take them away." In 2000 two of her productions, Doctor Who and The Naked Civil Servant, finished third and fourth respectively in a British Film Institute poll of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.
In the 2002 New Year's Honours list Lambert was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to film and television production, and the same year she received BAFTA's Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Contribution to Television. She died of cancer five days before her 72nd birthday. She was due to have been presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Women in Film and Television Awards the following month.