INTERVIEW – STEVE CAMBDEN

Steve talks about everybody's favourite tin dog, his time working on Doctor Who and the work that went into his two books, The Doctor's Affect and The Doctor's Effects. Steve also talks about his contribution to a new book celebrating Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, The Vault.


Your book, The Doctor's Affect, is a journey through your time working on the series. The events are extremely well documented - almost as if they happened yesterday. How did you go about putting the book together? 



By referring back to anything and everything that I'd kept from that period; diaries, letters, photographs, camera scripts, studio floor plans, visual effects storyboards, 8mm filmed location footage, props kept as souvenirs and the actual episodes themselves. In some instances, I found that I'd already written and typed up lengthy accounts of the recording sessions on each story, just a few days after their conclusion. I suppose I had the rather innocent intention of submitting these to a fanzine or the official Doctor Who Weekly comic (as it was known back then), though I never did. 



Gradually, sifting through all that material I began to jig-saw together a pretty clear description of the production process but I knew for the book to work with a reader who was a stranger to that situation, I was going to have to inject something of the adventure and self-discovery I'd experienced. In order to assist with the imagery, I decided to relate my memories in the 'present tense' as far as possible, allowing the reader to transport back through time to share my activities in the 'now'. I reasoned that there must be thousands of fans with the unrealised ambition of witnessing Doctor Who being location filmed or studio recorded. So my aim was to capture a detailed and good humoured insight of the show's workings, to compensate those would-be visitors who never made it. Now they can! Time travel through a paperback book, back to the BBC of the late 1970s.

On completion the manuscript was met with indifference from every professional publisher I presented it to. With hindsight, I think the reason for this was that the book didn't pigeon-hole into an easily recognisable category. It is an intensely personal memoir, so why should a play-it-safe publisher take the risk that it would translate well to a book buying audience. 


I was the only person with total belief in the project, so I put my money where my mouth was and self-financed the publication. It wasn't the lavishly illustrated coffee-table book that I wanted, but I'm proud of the solid little paperback that emerged. It has a definite beginning, middle and end, with my career struggles at the start perfectly reflecting my struggles to get the book published at the end, sandwiched nicely between two letters from Tom Baker written 25 years apart. You can't invent that kind of literary continuity and I'm grateful that I was gifted with it. Ultimately, I suspect I was always destined to finance publication of The Doctor's Affect, because in addition to the literary echoes it provided me with, I learnt such a lot from handling the book's publishing and distribution. 



Incidentally, I got severely criticised in a couple of reviews for documenting all the rejection my manuscript received. They perceived that I was attacking the individuals who'd rejected the project, when all I was doing was telling the truth about how hard it is to reach fruition with any ambition. It took a great deal of effort for me to find work on Doctor Who, and it also took a great deal of effort to get a book about it published. My heartfelt thanks go out to everybody who supported my writings by buying the book, and especially to those readers who later communicated that my struggles had entertained and even occasionally inspired. 


 

As a childhood fan, your dream was to work on Doctor Who - and after enough persistence you got that dream. Is there any particular memory or moment that sticks in your mind, which sums up your time working on the series? 



Quite a while before I worked on Doctor Who, I'd either known or just believed totally that I'd attain my ambition. Don't ask me to explain exactly what that confidence grew out of, because I'm honestly not sure that I can tell you. It was just a faith that I felt and followed intuitively. For those of you who'd like a vague insight towards the surreal similarities of my journey, suspend your disbelief and check out the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams. 


As for choosing one particular memory from my Doctor Who experiences, no, I wouldn't want to focus it down to 'one moment'. 'One period' would perhaps be Shada's location filming, partly because it felt like I was running along an adrenaline-fuelled highwire and partly because everybody was so blissfully good natured. Not even the strike by lighting technicians could sour an already magical atmosphere, it just bought out the Dunkirk-spirit in everybody and drew the cast and crew even closer together. 



And let me tell you, when you're just a know-nothing teenager, under-age socialising with your acting and special effects heroes provides you with the most blissful rush that words can't communicate. You're beyond 'lucky' at that point, you're 'unique', you've won! You do have to be very careful that the euphoria of it all doesn't mess you up, and the knowledge that it's going to end at some point doesn't make you burst into tears. All you can do is enjoy it to the full and show a little humility towards anybody who's envious of your position. 


Thinking about it now, the common theme to my happiest recollections of working on the series, are the instances where I was treated as an equal by my peers. Although I can't offer 'one particular memory or moment' that sums up my time on the series, I can express the 'one word' which often springs to mind and that word is, gratitude. 



 

Your other book, The Doctor's Effects, deals with the visual effects side of the programme. Is this something you still have an interest in? 



I've far more interest in how the old ground breaking special effects were achieved, than I have in the ever evolving high-tech marvels of today's visual effects. For that reason, researching my second book, The Doctor's Effects, was a real pleasure, because I got to meet all the pioneering BBC personnel, some of whom had already left the corporation by the time I was working there. As a child I'd memorised all their names from the Doctor Who end credits, so it was great to finally meet them in person. In some cases I'd have to remind them of the programmes they'd worked on, but with memories jogged they'd reminisce for hours and occasionally produce their original design sketches, or amazing never-before-seen photographs of the effects sequences being executed.

 

In today's TV and cinema, Computer Generated Images are doing most of the work that once went to the model makers. What's your opinion on computer generated images? 



I have no problem with computers assisting with the creation of any entertainment medium, but I have a real dislike of their running and in some cases taking over the whole show. I think a balanced approach produces the best results, the more recent James Bond films contain good examples of physical and computer effects being used to compliment each other. Computers can be a great time and money saver, which sometimes seems to be the only reason budget restricted producers favour them. I'd compare CGI's development and increased usage, to the evolution of the drum machine back in the early 1980s.

We used to think that the intention of computer advancement was to assist technicians and musicians, we now see in many cases that it has permanently replaced them. As a direct consequence, the Music Industry immediately began shrinking creatively, with more and more identikit artists, manufactured to a cheap computer backing track.

Likewise, no matter how well it's done, CGI has a slightly flat appearance to my eyes and I find that the shows which rely on it too heavily end up looking similarly bland. Having said that, I thought the optional addition of CGI sequences to The Ark in Space DVD were wonderful. They complimented and even improved the original programme, offering an alternative to the budget restricted miniature sequences of the time. 


 

Was two years working behind the scenes enough? Any regrets? 


Actually, I was only directly involved with Doctor Who for about 14 months in total, spaced between 1979 & 1980, during which seasons 17 and 18 were made. Was it enough? Hell, yes! I'd have been grateful to experience just one story in production, as it was, I made minor contributions to seven of them; Destiny of the Daleks, Nightmare of Eden, The Horns of Nimon, Shada, State of Decay, Meglos and Full Circle. It could have been eight shows if my boss, Nigel Brackley, hadn't broken his ankle a few days before the studio sessions to Warrior's Gate began. 



Obviously, I'd have preferred to end my association with the programme on K9’s final story, but it just wasn't meant to be. I'd always known that my involvement with the show would naturally terminate at some point. I've no major complaints and no real regrets, because I believe that everything about my time on the show took place exactly as it was meant to. Tom Baker was also about to leave, so it was clearly the end of an era. I wouldn't have wanted to stay on any longer. 



 

Did your perception of Doctor Who change after your involvement? 



What you have to realise is that it wasn't my perception of the show that changed through my having worked on it, it was the fact that the show had undergone huge dramatic changes throughout the early 1980's. New title sequence, new theme music, new incidental music, new companions, new (much younger) Doctor, new weekday time slot for transmissions. Suddenly, I found there was very little left of the programme I'd grown up with, so its attraction automatically weaned after transmission of the stories I'd worked on and Tom's departure.

Each actor who portrayed the Doctor was very much 'of his own time', and for me personally, the best of Doctor Who will always be the Pat Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years, because that's who I grew up with. There are odd stories outside of those eras that I enjoyed, but my real following of the series terminated in 1981. 



 

How do you find watching the episodes you were involved in, and do you have a particular favourite? 



Whilst researching The Doctor's Affect, I enjoyed watching the stories I was involved with, but it's quite impossible for me to disassociate myself from all the off-camera dramas that I can recall. The memories are still vivid, so the realisation that these events took place decades ago, combined with the knowledge that certain members of the cast and crew are no longer with us and that the BBC Television Centre studios are now closed, is quite disorientating. 



Of the stories I did, I'd choose Destiny of the Daleks as the closest to a classic. Shada has to be my personal favourite, but that's not because of its unfulfilled potential as a production, watching it now simply stimulates a jumble of my teenage memories and emotions. Dear Douglas Adams! I often think of him, and hope he’s happy hitch-hiking around the universe. What a legacy of entertainment he left us. Was the answer 42? In my book, the answer is “find a job you like and you’ll never work again!”

Some of your treasured souvenirs feature in the BBC’s 50th anniversary Doctor Who book, The Vault, don’t they?

That’s right. I saved quite a few odds and ends from disposal whilst I was actually in the studio, but more recently I set about collecting and preserving any original props I could find. I still have the collapsed Mandrel head from Nightmare of Eden, which I have restored and hung on my wall like a trophy head. When you put your nose next to the thing and take a good sniff, there’s a unique aroma that transports my mind back to that recording session. From Shada, I’ve the three different sized miniatures of Skagra’s spaceship and part of the destroyed Think-Tank space wheel. I also have a jacket and a pair of boots from Meglos, plus a Tegellan soldier’s rifle.

Other original props that I’ve tracked down from crew members or got at auction include: a working giant spider with clockwork operated mandibles from the Planet of the Spiders High Council, Leela’s blow-pipe from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the mind-probe from Frontier in Space, a Planet of Evil rifle, an oxygen mask and a dummy sub-machine gun from Fury from the Deep (later used in by U.N.I.T soldiers in The Three Doctors and The Android Invasion), the first Seeds of Doom pod, which came with a collection of 40 cast and crew autographs, K9’s left-hand side panel made specifically for The Armageddon Factor, when a miniature Doctor and Drax emerge from the dog’s innards, ancient pyramid plans for Pyramids of Mars, but unused or edited out of the finished programme, a mining lamp from Frontios, and original special effects design drawings from various adventures.

My main motivation for collecting all this stuff is to ensure that it’s preserved for future generations to enjoy. I make a point of displaying the items when I do one of my talks or book promotions, as I think it’s important to give other fans access should they wish it. The Vault project allows us to see and know exactly what’s preserved.


Do you enjoy conventions? 



Yes, but I find them very hard work. I envy the actors who attend the proceedings with no more luggage than a biro for autographs, whilst I've probably spent days beforehand, collecting, packing, transporting, unpacking and then assembling a props and photographic display in the early hours of the morning. It's worth the effort when I see how grateful some of the attendees are though, and meeting the fans who supported my books is always a real pleasure. 



Another joy, is being occasionally reunited with cast and crew members who I either worked alongside, or previously had only known through watching television. I'm very proud to be a relative of the extensive 'Doctor Who family' and it still surprises me sometimes that I get to socialise with my childhood idols. 



 

Is your Doctor Who involvement something you can’t escape from?

Yes, but I wouldn’t want to escape from it anyway. It has continually enriched me and never fails to amaze me how Doctor Who keeps coming back into my life. A couple of years ago, the auction house, Bonhams, asked if I’d be interested in renovating one of their lots. It turned out to be the Brontosaurus from Jon Pertwee’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs. I used to visit that model at the Longleat and Blackpool exhibitions!

Likewise, when Louise Jameson asked me to restore her second Leela costume, that’s such a privilege to be trusted by someone you used to watch every week on the telly. I’m still asked to lecture at universities, often to people who weren’t even born when I was working on the show. I’ll still be connected to it when I’m not here anymore. The show and its contributors, both large and small, attain a kind of immortality through the continued dedication of the fans.

 

Describe K.9 in three words, twelve times. 



A robot dog. A superb design. A poor companion. An open door. A meal ticket. A backstage pass.

Heavy to lift. Hard to pull. Kids loved him. Fans hated him. A fond memory. Radio uncontrolled prop. 


How do you see your future connection to Doctor Who? 



I'd educate a guess that I'll forever be involved in artistic communication somewhere within the entertainment industry, and that there'll certainly be the odd Doctor Who association along the way. I noticed one curious example of this when I finished writing a stage play called, Take Off Your Body & Show Me Your Soul, which I'd specifically designed to be a tour de force vehicle for just two actors. It's set in the present, in a small flat, in two hours of real time, involving a suicidal female and a mysterious male who's aim is to stimulate salvation. 


It was in no way written to be a Doctor Who story, but it struck me when I'd finished the piece how the dialogue could work just as well with the Doctor and a companion as the lead characters, albeit in a very different kind of adventure. So it seems that whether consciously or subconsciously, the programme and its wide reaching influence will be forever in my own personal programming. That suits me fine, because Doctor Who always projected moral values to its audience. Morals, that helped to make the world a better place. For that very reason, it's always enlightening to note the kind of people that despised the show. 





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


All photos on this page © Steve Cambden