John Nathan-Turner (12 August 1947 - 1 May 2002) was first a member of the production team and then the ninth, longest serving and final producer for the original run of Doctor Who. He is often known simply by his initials, JNT.
Many of JNT's later traits as producer can be seen in his very earliest contact with the dramatic arts. As a teenager, he was interested in advertising. On a trip to a publicity firm, he realised that he was really more attracted to the show business side of producing commercials than to the gritty reality of advertising office spaces. He became a stage manager at a cabaret in Birmingham, where he dealt with a number of 1960s British celebrities like Shirley Bassey. He also worked as a property master on a pantomime in town, which cemented his career ambitions. In the mid-1960s, he met a young Graham Williams, whose girlfriend — a clerk to the Head of Costumes — could get him a job in television. His first contract with the BBC was a one-month gig as a male costume assistant. Though his time in this role was brief, he met several people who would become important to his later career. Most notably, he met Bill Sellars, the future producer of All Creatures Great and Small.
Following this initial foray into television, he returned to the theatre for three years, where he was a stage manager and occasional bit player.
This prepared him for his next television job. He joined the BBC as a floor assistant in 1968, and he first worked on Doctor Who in that capacity on The Space Pirates — recorded in Studio D of the Lime Grove Studios. Like Verity Lambert, he disdained those early Doctor Who facilities:
- "... [Studio D] was murder, as the studio was on the fourth floor and all the dressing rooms were in the basement and the ground floor. I spent a lot of time running up and down stairs."
He continued to work on the show sporadically during the Jon Pertwee era — by which time Doctor Who had left Lime Grove behind. During the early 1970s, Nathan-Turner was rotated around several different projects, and so only worked on specific Doctor Who serials, rather than whole seasons. In particular, he was a part of the crew on The Ambassadors of Death and Colony in Space. In the first half of the decade, he was less associated with Doctor Who than with period dramas such as the Emmy-winning The Pallisers, and Nicholas Nickleby. He regarded the producer of those shows, Martin Lisemore, as a mentor. His breakthrough into genuine production came almost simultaneously from two directions at once. In 1977, he was engaged as production unit manager for Season 1 of All Creatures Great and Small and Season 15 of Doctor Who. Famously, his stint on All Creatures introduced him to Peter Davison, the future Fifth Doctor. But it also gave his dog, "Pepsi", the recurring role as "Pepper" — one of Sigfried Farnon's ubiquitous pets.
He continued as both shows' production manager for two years. In November 1979, he was asked to take over from Graham Williams as producer of Doctor Who. Finally forced to choose between the two, he left All Creatures in the middle of its third season.
Role as producer
Nathan-Turner took over as producer at the beginning of the eighteenth season, which turned out to be the last that featured Tom Baker's popular portrayal of the Fourth Doctor. He subsequently cast the next three actors to play the role, namely Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (1981–1984), Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor (1984–1986), and Sylvester McCoy (1987–1989, 1996) as the Seventh Doctor.
Discounting the short charity piece, Dimensions in Time, his onscreen tenure lasted from The Leisure Hive to Survival. Behind the scenes, however, he retained his job for more than a year longer. Due to the fact that the show was not flatly cancelled following the broadcast of the 26th season — but merely put on "indefinite hiatus" — he was still the salaried producer for what would have been the production and broadcast year of the 27th season. Technically, he left the programme via a letter of resignation dated 31 August 1990, the same day that the Doctor Who production offices were officially closed by the BBC.
Having served as producer for so long, and possessed of a greater media presence than previous incumbents, Nathan-Turner was often the object of intense scrutiny by the series' fans. Decisions such as the casting of Bonnie Langford as the Doctor's companion are still a topic of discussion in the Doctor Who fan community almost thirty years later. His tenure coincided with a period of large growth in the show's fan base in the United States, thanks to repeated showings on affiliates of the American Public Broadcasting Service.
He was very effective at generating publicity for the series by threatening to remove or change a traditional element of it. Examples include the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, K9, the TARDIS (or at least he threatened to do away with its police box shape, and briefly did so in Attack of the Cybermen), and Tom Baker's Doctor.
Nathan-Turner's changes to the programme were originally well received by Doctor Who fans, to whom he extended an unprecedented degree of welcome. Like his predecessor, Graham Williams, he actively cultivated ties with the fan base. However, his door was open to fan opinion leaders to an even greater degree. Fanzine editors would be granted interviews by Nathan-Turner in the Doctor Who production office. Although he did not divulge the contents of forthcoming storylines in such conversations, he would speak in depth and at length about his approach to producing the show.
This openness to fandom proved a double-edged sword for Nathan-Turner. As his tenure on the series lengthened, and especially when the show's ratings began to drop, fan criticism of Nathan-Turner became more prevalent. His changes implemented during Colin Baker's era were among the most criticised for being so radical and jarring. Fanzines, particularly Doctor Who Bulletin (later DWBulletin) began to blame him for decisions made about the series, whether he was responsible for them or not. During the time the 1987 serial Delta and the Bannermen was broadcast, UK media began to pick up on the existence of "fan campaigns" against Nathan-Turner. Supporters of Nathan-Turner argue that the producer was not solely to blame for the series' decline in ratings and that the hierarchy at the BBC, funding issues and the decision to schedule the series opposite the popular Coronation Street should all share some responsibility. He continued to be involved in Doctor Who-related events (including co-writing the one-off mini-episode Dimensions in Time, the only Doctor Who story for which he received a writer credit) until shortly before his death.
Nathan-Turner died of liver failure just over a year before the announcement by the BBC that the show would be revived, with new episodes to air beginning in 2005. He was outlived by his long-term partner, Gary Downie, a production manager on Doctor Who. Downie died on 19 January 2006.
Trivia and trademarks
JNT made himself instantly recognisable and imitable at convention costume contests etc. with his combination of beard, longish hair and Hawaiian shirt. Some time during the Sylvester McCoy years, he dispensed with the beard, but aloha shirts and other colourful attire remained integral to his overall "look".
- "Stay tuned." Nathan-Turner often said this to the fan and general press, meaning that something good was coming up.
- "The memory cheats." Nathan-Turner once offered this as a defence to his then current production of the programme. He used this expression to mean that viewers of the series often had a distorted recollection of older episodes, believing them to be better than they were. Although it's not known if he actually coined the phrase, it has become part of science fiction fandom vernacular, not just among Doctor Who fans.
- "Surprised and delighted..." Another common phrase sometimes used by him to the press.
- "I have been persuaded to stay." After several attempts to resign from his duty as Doctor Who's producer. By the time of the series' 1989 cancellation, he had made this statement several times, to the point where it turned in both a running joke and a focus for criticism.
Works written by
- The TARDIS Inside Out
- The Companions
- The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs (audiobook)
- Dimensions in Time (mini-episode; co-writer)
- Bodle, Andy (11 May 2002). John Nathan-Turner obituary. The Guardian. Retrieved on 17 December 2016.
- O'Shea, Kevin, "The Heat Is Off". Doctor Who Magazine #164. 8 September 1990. p. 9-11.
- Shannon Sullivan's description of the recording of The Aztecs
- Having already secured his services for the 15th season, the BBC brought him forward as production unit manager for the last bit of recording of Philip Hinchcliffe's swansong, The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
- Doctor Who Magazine #166. 31 October 1990. p. 5.
- Delta and the Bannermen DVD production notes commentary, BBC Video, 2009