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Terry Nation, Creator of The Daleks, 'Blake's 7' and 'Survivors', Really Wanted To Be A Stand-Up Comedian

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Yesterday, someone read my Huffington Post piece about Doctor Who in which I mentioned that the series' original budget was £2,000 per show.

They pointed out to me that the BBC science fiction TV series Blake's 7 initially inherited the special effects budget of the BBC's (for the time) gritty, realistic police series Softly, Softly - which was £50 per show.

Blake's 7, unlike Softly Softly, involved model space ships, explosions, physics-defying events and interstellar warfare.

It seems to me a little unlikely that Blake's 7 actually did inherit Softly, Softly's effects budget, because Softly, Softly ended in 1969 and Blake's 7 started in 1978. It sounds like it might be a fan-based myth. But, to mis-quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend sounds fascinating, print the legend".

It got me thinking, though, about Blake's 7 (yesterday was a slow day) and reminded me that, in 1978, I interviewed the show's creator Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks for Doctor Who.

The interview was published in the January 1979 issue of Starburst magazine.

Terry Nation died in 1997. As a writer, he will be remembered for those two things - the Daleks and Blake's 7 - but he was far more interesting than that.

My introduction to the interview (with some clarifications for 2011 readers) ran like this:

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Terry Nation was best known for his fantasy writing, as creator of the Daleks and Blake's 7. But it was not always that way. He originally wanted to get up on stage and be a stand-up comedian.

Born in Cardiff, he grew up during World War II. His father was away in the army and his mother was an air-raid warden, so there were times when he would sit alone in the air-raid shelter as German planes bombed Cardiff. He said he believed in the only child syndrome: "Being an only child (as he was) you have to invent your own persona and your own stories." As for other influences, he said: "I grew up with a marvellous BBC radio service that had a thing called Children's Hour. I read early. And I also grew up in the front row of the local Odeon cinema."

He started his working life at eighteen, as a commercial traveller for the family furniture factory. But, aged 25, he gave up this career and moved to London with hopes of becoming a stage comedian. These hopes were dashed. As he said: "To play your best jokes and receive back absolute silence is pretty devastating."

Eventually, a talent broker told him: "Son, the jokes are funny - it's you that's not." If there was a turning point in Terry Nation's life, then that was it.

Fortunately, he encountered the comedian Spike Milligan who saw Nation was starving, gave him £10 and commissioned him to write a Goon Show radio script. At the time, Milligan was involved in a talent agency which included Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight. It was a small world and Nation's successful comedy script led to writing work for such major comedians of the time as Peter Sellers, Tony HancockFrankie HowerdTed Ray and Harry Worth,

In all, he wrote more than 200 radio shows; he also contributed to attempted Goon Show TV spin-off The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d and to The Jimmy Logan Show and Val Parnell's Startime. But, by that time, he had decided his comedy writing "wasn't really very good".

So he turned down the chance to write four episodes of ITV's The Army Game (ironically co-starring the future first Doctor Who William Hartnell). Instead, he wrote three scripts for the ITV science fiction series Out of This World. He adapted Philip K.Dick's Imposter, Clifford Simak's Immigrant and wrote an original screenplay Botany Bay.

He then returned to comedy, writing for a Tony Hancock stage show in Nottingham: "I leapt at it," Nation said, "because he was the greatest comic in the world." At which point, "the BBC came up with this idea for this crazy doctor who travelled through time and space. They called my agent, my agent called me, Hancock said Don't write for flippin' kids and I told my agent to turn it down."

Luckily, Nation and Hancock then had a 'dispute', parted company and Nation agreed to work on Doctor Who.... But then Eric Sykes offered him a comedy writing assignment in Sweden, so he wrote the seven episodes of the first Dalek story (The Dead Planet) in seven days and left to join Sykes.

Doctor Who first appeared on screen in 1963. Within  three weeks, it was drawing the largest audience for its time-slot in BBC history. After a four-part introductory story, The Dead Planet introduced the Daleks.

In 1965, Dalek merchandising (toys etc) reportedly earned Nation £50,000. The Dr Who and The Daleks feature film (1965) reportedly brought him in £300,000. And Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 AD followed in 1966. By 1977, the Daleks were still one of the four top TV toys and their creator was reportedly earning £40,000 a year from scripts.

But the Daleks were only a small part of his output.

He wrote a dozen scripts (more than anyone else) for the original ITV series of The Saint. That success led to a job as script editor and writer on The Baron TV series. He also wrote for The Champions, was script editor on The Avengers (the series which co-starred Linda Thorson), was script editor and associate producer on The Persuaders! He created Survivors and Blake's 7.

I met Terry Nation at the Reform Club in London's Pall Mall (the base for Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days) and talked about the fantasy world which he had created. I thought he was rather shy and insecure. I think he was a new member of the Reform Club and rather over-awed by the fact a middle class boy like himself had broken into what he saw as 'the Establishment'.