Derrick Sherwin: A Retrospective

What is it about The Invasion that makes it a quintessential Doctor Who? Derrick Sherwin’s influence on the series cannot be underestimated, writes Michael Seely.

The news announced earlier in the week of the death of Doctor Who writer, script editor, producer and bit-part player Derrick Sherwin could not have come at a more ironic moment for it is the fiftieth anniversary of his only credited script for the series, The Invasion. And what a story. Eight episodes of sheer perfection, which introduced the para-military outfit UNIT to the series, fronted by a newly promoted Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), and supported in the background by one Corporal – and soon to be promoted as Sergeant – Benton (John Levene). This trial run for a more earthbound and grounded direction for the series to go succeeded only too well, and its legacy stayed with the programme long past its sell by date. Sherwin only wrote the script because his preferred choice of David Whitaker, who had scripted another Kit Pedler idea, was unavailable.

What is it about The Invasion that makes it almost a quintessential Doctor Who? As well as its gritty earthbound setting in factories, backstreets, and familiar London landmarks, it features a superbly written and realised villain in the shape of Kevin Stoney’s much mimicked Tobias Vaughn. Charm and insidious ruthlessness and violence in one.  The monsters of the piece, the Cybermen, are simply his foot soldiers, barely seen (if truth be told) in some very effective filming on location where many a publicity photograph was taken, enticing the imagination of the readers of Doctor Who Weekly or the Monthly. On top of that we have a near perfect trio of characters inside the TARDIS; Patrick Troughton, Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury playing their roles at top speed.

At eight episodes in length, The Invasion is almost a masterclass in how one can pace and shape a long running serial, keeping up interest and excitement without forcing the place. Terrance Dicks liked to pad out an under-running script with an argument (for example, the bickering Dominators in the fourth episode of that story, often seen as the highlight of the piece), or with a fight (such as Axus and Jamie going at it hammer and fists in The Krotons). Sherwin did not need to do that. The story played out to its running time. One suspect he could have made a better job of the ten part The War Games. In fact, at one point Sherwin was scheduled to write the last four episodes of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor but this fell through. What a shame for us.

Sherwin came onto the programme as a script editor at a time when the programme was regularly presenting six part stories, some of which could become an exercise in clock watching while waiting for the story to get a move on. Under Sherwin’s watch, his desire for pace lead to one story having an episode lopped off its running time.

His time on the series lasted two years more or less and is stereotyped in Doctor Who lore as the period when story after story fell through and hurried replacements or last-minute rewrites managed to get what they wanted. Whether the stories were any good or not is up to your judgement. Even The Space Pirates, frequently seen as one of the more boring Doctor Whos ever told is not as bad as reputation would suggest, and is very different to the stories around it.

He was responsible for a new first episode to the follow-up serial, The Mind Robber, creating a masterpiece which unfortunately lead to one boring modern cultural commenter to declare it had been written under the influence of drugs. Oh yeah? Try it and see how to stick to a budget, or in this case, practically no budget. Famously, it reused robot costumes designed for Out of the Unknown, but they also appeared in one of his Thirty Minute Theatres as a recently discovered publicity photograph from the lost production showed.

Sherwin did more with his life than the attention his Doctor Who’s bring to his name, but his influence on the series cannot be underestimated. He would introduce by an apocryphal chance remark to Terrance Dicks, the Time Lords, who were designed to point the programme into the direction point of UNIT, Jon Pertwee and colour TV.

Sherwin was a former actor and when he joined Doctor Who was still relatively new to television writing, having written a couple of Thirty Minute Theatres. A spell on the ATV soap Crossroads appears to have been a perfect training ground for Doctor Who story editors (and serial writers in general) and Sherwin would bring across from Birmingham Terrance Dicks to act as his assistant. Sherwin rapidly became the programme’s associate producer to Peter Bryant. Sherwin was promoted to producer for two stories when Bryant was moved onto Paul Temple within a different  drama department. Sherwin immediately threw himself into departmental battles over the costs of special effects, limp publicity photographs, fighting production delays due to strikes, and gearing the next series up for a much more shortened run. He also found time to make a series with Bryant called SP Air about the RAF in Singapore.

Francis Matthews as crime novelist and amateur sleuth Paul Temple. (Photo: BBC)

Then suddenly, he is gone, assisting once again Peter Bryant in trying to make 1930s radio detective Paul Temple seem a bit more relevant to the Sunday night audiences of 1970. He also had to help guide the series as a co-production with a German television station, and he took full advantage of this and had episodes filmed entirely on location in Europe. In the only BBC file left for the programme, there was an impassioned plea by Sherwin as he outlined to his producer the options for revamping the  series, urging Bryant that they did not have a moment to lose. He was even prepared, although ultimately over-ruled, to recast Paul Temple’s screen wife, played by Ros Drinkwater, who he felt was less than effective. One thing they did do was redesign the title sequence and created something which was quite famous for its time – the man running down a long corridor (Marble Arch car park, actually) – played by John Levene no less, and directed by Sherwin. Unfortunately, Francis Matthews, who played Paul Temple, hated it, and it only lasted the one series, as did Peter Bryant.

Paul Temple was one of those programmes enjoyed by its audience but detested by the BBC and by its critics. The Stage could never find anything good to say about it, and the few episodes to survive in English certainly present a hit and miss affair. Sherwin became its sole producer when Bryant left the BBC in 1970 and remained so for its duration. Sherwin did not think much of the series himself, but he gave it his best shot, even taking over a production assistant’s job on location when she was clearly not up to the job. This was something he did with an extra when filming a car park sequence in Spearhead From Space. He was lucky the unions did not take note.

Nothing survives of his next series for the BBC, an anthology series hosted by former detective Maigret himself, Rupert Davies, The Man Outside, but it did spawn a situation comedy for BBC2 set in Wales. Sherwin returned to the BBC after a spell producing Ski-Boy for Lew Grade. Called The Perils of Pendragon, it featured such pleasant episode titles like Cut Yourself A Slice of Throat, and despite being set in Wales, Sherwin suspected Ronnie Barker’s skinflint shop-keeper as seen in Open All Hours was pinched from his series. The series has the unique distinction of having offended the Communist Party of Great Britain who were tipped off due to its depiction of its members being gun-toting bank robbers. This was screened during the February 1974 election. The BBC shelved the offending episode and put out another one and waited until the election was over. Or so the Daily Mirror said…

I interviewed Derrick Sherwin a few years ago just after he had published his autobiography for Fantom. He had recently returned to England after a spell abroad and was recovering from an illness. He told me he had written it very quickly, and it showed sadly as he skipped over his television career in order to reach his fascinating life in Thailand. He courted controversy at the time for misremembering the exact sequence of events which lead to the character of Lethbridge-Stewart becoming a regular and thought he had created the character and had him inserted in The Web of Fear (when he was originally Colonel Lethbridge). I suspect he was remembering placing him into The Invasion in order to have him as a regular in the following series, that would have been closer to the truth. What is certainly true, and there are memos to prove it, had the true creators (Henry Lincoln and Mervyn Haisman) raised problems, Sherwin could easily have created a new replacement character.

This minor controversy might not have mattered but it came close to a time when someone claimed authorship of Davros through a TV Comic competition before 1975, and the estate of Anthony Coburn claimed authorship of the series itself. Fan knives were out. Sherwin also upset more sensitive fans by revealing that his Peter Bryant was not always easy to work with after lunch time due to a drink problem. The Doctor Who production office decamped from Threshold House to the BBC bar at Television Centre. Many production offices followed suit, but sometimes at a personal cost, and Bryant was sadly one of them.

Many thanks Derrick for The Invasion and everything else you did for Doctor Who. Your life was far more than that, but it has fed my imagination – and that of many others – for many years past, and a good few to come.

❉ ‘Who’s Next?: a Memoir’ by Derrick Sherwin is published by Fantom Books andcan be ordered directly from the publishers, RRP £16.99.

❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here. You can hear Michael Seely discussing his book with Miwk here.

❉ Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017.  Click here to order.

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