‘Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner’ reviewed

❉ We review ‘Totally Tasteless’, Richard Marson’s biography of the most controversial figure in the history of Doctor Who.

Let’s face it, anyone over the age of 10 who likes Doctor Who has an opinion on the John Nathan-Turner era, even if it’s as basic as “Hur hur, that Colin Baker looked a bit of a twat, didn’t he?”

As Victor Lewis-Smith likes to say, his critics were less kind. However, regardless of the image this era has in the popular consciousness, the producer who created a Doctor for several sub-generations of children, often in the face of withering contempt from his employer, deserves his fascinating, complicated story to be told, and this is exactly what ‘Totally Tasteless’ does.

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As might be expected with such a strong, complex character as John Nathan-Turner, his biography has caused as much controversy as the man himself, and so here we are, on the second incarnation of the book, this time with an exhaustive collection of emails and diary entries about its creation.

Given the refreshing honesty of the book, I’ll be honest myself; I had doubts about the value of this appendix, wondering whether it wasn’t a little self-indulgent. But of course Marson proved me wrong. The book had an understandably difficult birth, being something of a warts-and-all story which, by design, trod on a few toes, but an unexpected fly flew straight into the ointment as the book was released; the investigation into Jimmy Savile.

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The fallout of an extraordinary event hit what was then ‘JN-T: The Life and Times of John Nathan-Turner’ full in the face. The book had tackled JN-T’s sex life and the culture of the BBC with admirable honesty, but the sort of revelations that might have caused mere grumbles in fandom circles in any other set of circumstances became explosive in the hands of some elements of the British media after the Savile story broke, who were desperate to link the consensual exploits of John and his partner Gary with the criminal activities being revealed at what seemed to be a dizzying rate.

Marson provides diary entries and emails from the time, revealing with commendable honesty the relief he felt at Savile turning him down for the ‘Tales of Television Centre’ documentary he made soon before the scandal broke, and his concern for the victims, which then leads to his shock at being the unwilling eye of a storm consisting of moral panic, hurt egos and BBC politics. Marson gets through it with the help of his publisher and support from various contributors and writers, including a friend of mine, the fine entertainment writer Louis Barfe, and their email exchanges are cheering when Marson experiences a high-profile contributor publically turning against him and some in the BBC treating him with barely-veiled hostility.

Frankly, Marson’s ordeal is probably worth a book on its own, as it demonstrates the rough ride honesty receives when confronted with hyperbole, hysteria and hypocrisy. Whilst Marson treats delicate revelations with frankness and respect, the press’ reporting of the complex interplay between criminal activities and consensual encounters in a fevered culture was anything but. Whilst the BBC’s desire to protect itself was entirely understandable, the lack of courage demonstrated by some in the Corporation only reflects badly upon them now the dust is beginning to settle. Unfortunately, the instinct of some to duck and cover when difficult issues are raised by insensitive members of the press only really serves to legitimise whatever those journalists decide to write, when a more sturdy response might have defused at least some of the hysteria and protected the innocent.

‘Totally Tasteless’ is, in essence, two books, both dealing with difficult and complex issues, and are both fascinating to anyone with even slightly more than a passing interest in the production of the BBC’s most iconic and misunderstood series. Marson tells the story of its most controversial producer with deeply affecting honesty and manages to coax similar frankness from his contributors. A sensitive intelligence runs through the whole text, giving a complex life context and dignity. Even John Nathan-Turner’s powerful, exuberant personality can’t overshadow Marson’s love for his subject.


❉ ‘Totally Tasteless’ by Richard Marson is available to buy directly from Miwk Publishing, RRP £17.99

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