REVIEW: Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner

Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary year saw the publication of Richard Marson’s biography on the show’s former Producer John Nathan-Turner. It proved to be hugely controversial. Last month the book, which had been titled ‘JNT: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner’, was rereleased.

This new edition was retitled ‘Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner’, a reference to the Producer’s supposed description of what the Sixth Doctor’s costume should look like. It is now also presented with a cover from renowned Doctor Who artist Andrew Skilleter which is suitably bright and colourful accurately capturing the man in question. This new edition is effectively two books in one. The first section encompasses the biography and is a rollercoaster in itself. Secondly follows the story behind the biography and the furore it created.

The Life of John Nathan-Turner

John Nathan-Turner was Producer of Doctor Who for a whole decade. He had the unenviable tasks of taking the show into the 1980s and replacing the iconic Tom Baker. Many of his creative decisions were and still are, debated vociferously. He was regularly the subject of disparaging comments and ridicule. However, this biography looks at the human being behind the initials JNT.

Significant research went into the biography with author Richard Marson making great effort to delve back into his younger days and the humble beginnings in a suburb of Birmingham. Starting as a Production Assistant he held other roles including Assistant Floor Manager and Production Unit Manager. However, it was as Producer of Doctor Who that Nathan-Turner became forever linked. As a part of that research Marson also had access to JNT’s archive of paperwork. It reveals some of the other projects that he was interested in producing, frequently pitching to his superiors at the BBC. But Doctor Who effectively ruined his career. Nathan-Turner was forever dismissed as only being a Doctor Who Producer and was not given the opportunity with other shows that would’ve better suited his skills at managing budgets for instance.

At times it is a very difficult book to read. There are some unpleasant incidents recollected through the many interviews that Marson carried out during his extensive research. Although a Producer with no writing experience, relying heavily on his script editors, even Nathan-Turner would’ve appreciated the well-roundedness of his own character. As with all human beings, he was flawed but affectionately thought of. His partner, and former Doctor Who Production Manager, Gary Downie however, comes across particularly poorly. In fact, very few people had anything positive to say about Downie. To say certain things which are alleged to have occurred with Nathan-Turner and Downie involved were inappropriate is an understatement. That being said John Nathan-Turner’s ending is truly heartbreaking.

After being made redundant on August 31st, 1990, he never recovered. Alcohol abuse took a heavy toll on Nathan-Turner. He was also left devastated by the loss of his mother to whom he was devoted. For all his missteps it was a sad and surely a very painful ending for a person who just enjoyed working. Even his fiercest critics must acknowledge that no human being deserves such a demise.

The Authors Journey

Every project has its hiccups. Occasionally there is controversy. The original book took those statements to a whole new level. In addition to the expected debate over a suitable title, more unexpected issues arose with the publisher changing and potential contributors declining offers to be involved. It was clearly a difficult process but none of that would compare to what would happen with the reaction when the book was released.

Revelations in the book hit the headlines. Publication came at a time when the BBC was still reeling from another scandal. Accusations were also made that Marson himself had an axe to grind with the Corporation that had also dismissed him after his time on Blue Peter. As a Doctor Who fan and former writer for Doctor Who Magazine he was unquestionably an excellent candidate who could relate to Nathan-Turner having also been within the BBC himself. However, some of the attention the project received and Marson had to endure has to be read to be believed. These include reporters from The Sun newspaper on his doorstep after a story to “knock the BBC” and a particularly hostile interview for the ‘Media Show’.

To be absolutely clear none of the alleged incidents are even remotely in the same league as other atrocities that have been reported in the past few years. The author categorically states that, “although I did meet some people who felt that their treatment at the hands of John and Gary was inappropriate, it would not be true to say that I’ve found anyone willing to testify to coercion or abuse.” Yet Marson still had to endure a torturous time due to the actions of an individual long deceased. Had he been less detailed in his research or delivered a more family-friendly biography perhaps the controversy would’ve been avoided. The fact that the final product is so brutally honest is a testament to Richard Marson’s perseverance and integrity and is a credit to him.

This biography cannot be more highly recommended. It should however, be approached with an air of caution as sections are deeply uncomfortable to read. If you purchased and read the original release then it is worth investing in this new edition for the lovely new artwork on the cover but particularly for Richard Marson’s startling addendum. 10/10

Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner is available at http://www.miwkpublishing.com/store/

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