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Subj: Robert Holmes:A Life In Words
Posted: Sun Oct 08, 2017 at 06:38:10 pm GMT (Viewed 751 times)
By way of a foreword and endorsement to Richard Molesworth's study and tribute to one of the unsung talents of the golden-age television drama of yesteryear Robert Bank Stewart opens up Robert Holmes:A Life In Words by taking us back in time to the 1950's and an informal lunch between submitting writers and John Bull magazine Sub-editor Robert Holmes.
There isn't anything particularly informative about this moment in time, certainly the writers present would all go on to do great things in the decades ahead, none more than Banks-Stewart himself as the creator of a number of well regarded television drama series, what the purpose of this moment of which Banks-Stewart notes though is something that will become steadily apparent as this book progresses through the coming three decades, of how close these two men were through the coming years, and of how similar in careers, but markedly different their ambitions and actual achievements, the two would turn out to be...
Richard Molesworth introduces his book looking at the life and work of Robert Holmes by setting the stage for it in noting two examples of modernday sincere plaudits for Holmes' skill as a craftsman, from the likes of Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt; he then makes note of the considerable input and influence on the shape and format of Doctor Who of which Holmes leaves as hiw legacy and then, unexpectedly, by taking us back to a day in 2003 when, while still working on the BBC's dvd range of Doctor Who, an attempt to make contact with Bob Holmes' surviving wife Patricia leads to a visit to the very house where the couple lived... the moment is a sombre one as Holmes' daughter is the one who greets Molesworth and he s told Patricia is seriously ill and in hospital, and as he goes on to inform us Patricia passes away several weeks later...
It's a sad and affecting way in approaching this coming book. And perhaps the book does suffer for the passing of the one figure who could have brought Robert Holmes into sharp relief, as while the coming journey through his life and work is a finely detailed and researched one the lack of first-hand family contributions and their undoubted ability to fill in the early years of Holmes life, as well as his final years, is to become the books drawback. The Holmes' are survived by two children and at least one grandchild we are told, and yet the only family contribution of which Molesworth offers is of Patricia's brother Ian Watson, and it is deeply regrettable that Molesworth never offers any reason for the Holmes family's absence from the contents as it turns this book away from being a Biography per se', and instead bends the focus and style into being a study on the mans work instead. To make it clear then - this is not a Biography of Robert Holmes. Not as such. That book has yet to be written, but to be fair that book s quite possibly impossible to be written at this stage as if it IS the case that the surviving family of Robert Holmes decline such an invitation, or lack much that can actually inform on Holmes' early life, then clearly as Richard Molesworth finds here the very best one can hope to achieve is a heartfelt and fine tribute to the man, and his work.
Details on Robert (Bob) Holmes early life are scarce, not surprising as he was born in 1926, and although Molesworth never clarifies the point the suggestion that his daughter Laurian says theirs was a family that had no appetite for photographs does hint at a parentage that didn't dwell on the past. If so then the lack of contributions from the family in these initial formative chapters looking at Holmes early years are understandable, the best that any researcher could therefre do (as Molesworth does here) is to pull together any passing comments from the man himself over the years and of what collegues can recall. It's a weakness in depth though that detracts from the overall depth of the work, and particuarly damaging for the first half of this book as all Molesworth can do is relate a brief sketchy outline of the early life of Robert Holmes and supply virtually no detail or information on the personal lives of either Bob or Patricia. Certinly Brother-in-law Ian Watson relates the wonderfully ironic and romaantic first meeting between Police Constable Robert Holmes and the six year older Ms Patricia Watson "Hello Watson, I'm Holmes." , an instant charmer who would lead ms Watson down the aisle come 1950. From the constabulary to writing freelance, from national magazine John Bull to the dawn of popular television come the early 1960s. And the name of Robert Banks-Stewart enters the narrative of Holmes' life and will continue till the end of his life three dacades later.
But back to 2003, and an invitation by daughter Laurian to the thatched cottage of the Holmes family is a sombre one tinged with a sense of time stood still. Entering into the study once used by Robert Holmes Molesworth captures the air of the place in an eerie descriptive way in which we are brought there with him into that room - time having stood still since its occupants passing in 1986 and the lack of any subsequent modern distractions or additions leaving the sight of the small typewriter on the worn desk, a typewriter of which certainly wrote much or all of Holmes scripts in the 1980's, as a powerful focal point in this small but cosy office. A wooden ottoman over in the corner contains Holmes' accumulated paperwork and scripts/proposals, which when opened by Molesworth fills the air with the odour of distinctive pipe tobacco, a reassuring pipe being a favourite of Holmes, and the experience of being stood there with Molesworth in that little room, of something of the spirit of Robert Holmes himself still present and making himself known to us, sets the mood for what is to follow in the subsequent 440 page journey...
When did Robert Holmes become Robert Holmes though? Upon what point did the obviously competent and good natured Holmes described by Molesworth, and longtime friend Robert Banks-Stewart, transform into distinguished and proffessional scriptwriter?
As Richard Molesworth takes us on a linear path through Bob Holmes' shifting carreer path leading into his first television work in 1959 his research on the projects Holmes applied himself are duly listed off and a thorough plot analysis of the storyline or script that comes forth is covered. The procedure and effort in doing so is purely scholarly and mechanical from Molesworth at this point, in all fairness a good deal of the first half of the book is a very dull experience to plod through because of this impassionate approach. Molesworth cannot be entirely blamed for this perhaps as the fact is the timeframe covered (1950's to the latter half of the 1960's) means that few firsthand sources survive to be interviewed or are easily found if they do still exist.That it is Robert Banks-Stewart who is the chief source of information and firsthand viewpoint on these years only goes to show the transientary nature of the television medium, as when searching for any firm clue as to when it was Robert Holmes went from just-another-writer to becoming someone of whom people started to take a real notice and interest in the path on which Molesworth takes us on supplies the answers come the dawn of the 1970s and the evolution of Doctor Who, a series he had already supplied two (largely forgettable) stories for from being aimed as a childrens show to something much more inclusive of the wider audience - and therefore a greater degree of sophistication being implemented in both tone and content.
As Molesworth himself points out the differences between Holmes' 1968 script submissions for The Krotons and latterly The Space Pirates to the new revamped series of 1969/70 and Spearhead from Space, followed by Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters, is a striking one. The early two submissions to the Doctor Who office were aimed at a younger audience certainly, with one or two fine ideas withing at least, but when compared to the arrival of Jon Pertwee into the role and a switch in tonal emphasis the stories that come forth in the new era of colour Doctor Who are both substantially refined in scripting tems and extraordinarily disciplined in storytelling terms. And yet it can be hard to describe to the newcomer just how rough and unremarkable those first two script were for Doctor Who before the revamp. There is nothing in either The Krotons and The Space Pirates that is really memorable or remarkable. Whereas in Spearhead from Space and his subsequent twwo stories thereafter no other terms but remarkable and outstanding will suffice. Quite how this seemingly overnight transformation from struggling scriptwriter for Doctor Who to master craftsman took place in the span of barely more than a year has never been something onlookers have had any real explanation for, but as Molesworth carries us on through the time in question the possible answer becomes rather self-evident perhaps as this is where the we and Bob Holmes meet with the names of Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, and where in an unintentionally ironic shift Robert Holmes:A Life In Words is transformed from being a dry and mechanical overview of a writers sleast inspired work to becoming something incredibly rich and informative of both the maan himself and the level of craft he would become so well regarded for.
Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. These two names would likely be the key players in the re-establishing of Robert Holmes from day-to-day writer of 'stuff' to his becoming a figure of great significance in the industry at the time and someone who's name still reverbrates down through the contribuors of Doctor Who today. It isn't Richard Moleworth's intent to finger the creative partnership of Dicks and Letts as the transformative step in Holmes' approach and refining of his talent, and yet at this point in his book the inference to be had is hard to mistake. At this point in an otherwise dry and dull reading experience the quality and depth of Homes writing, and the contributions to friends and collegues to what they owe him and his friendship become the single most significant aspect to what it is Richard Molesworth is setting out to achive in this in-depth study and tribute to the man and his work. As significant as Terrance Dicks aand Barry Letts were to his growth as a writer it is with producer Philip Hinchcliffe with whom Holmes would reach his greatest success and by which he would cement his reputation for decades to come. It is fair to say then that by the time we reach halfway into the book, at page 219, is where the book comes alive finally, and if the previous 200 pages were a thirdhand rundown of Holmes' work so far then with the arrival of the Dicks/Letts partnership, and then finally Hinchcliffe as Robert Holmes is installed as series script editor, this is finally a book that rewards the patient reader who has stayed with it so far. As so rich in detail and firsthand sources from the priod has Molesworth to still be able to call upon that what he has dilligently and patiently managed to research and pull together is an account of life in the Doctor Who Office that is so vivid that it puts the reader right there and then. There will never be a better and more detailed account of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes years than this.
From the preliminary tailing of outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks as he finalises the last stories of Jon Pertwee's Doctor, to his detiling when and where Holmes actually first meets Philip Hinchcliffe. Molesworth goes on to tell us how Holmes will first encounter a young and still inexperienced Douglas Adams, of how and when neophyte and aspiring writer Chris Boucher first came to the attentions of Holmes, the numerous aborted scripts are discussued in some detail - including Douglas Camfield's attempts to script a tale revolving around the Foreign Legion that would end with the death of Sarah-Jane. The commissioning of each and every story within Holmes' time as Script editor is studied at and similarly discussed in-depth, the reasons behind the rewrites of which Holmes would become notorious for is never shied away from, and neither are the resulting growing tensions with the BBC copyright department at this practice! And yet the results, in terms of the finished products, speaks for itself. In one of the most impressive features of these chapters We are treated to a thorough examination of the origins, progress, and content of perhaps Holmes most popular script in Pyramids of Mars, and why it was that original writer Lewis Greifer failed to deliver it as planned. The equally chequered history of The Hand of Fear is covered, along with the equally problematic submissions from John Lucarrotti and Gerry Davis. Through it all one is impressed at the sheer energy and will of the partnership of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, their continual flouting and bending of the rules within the BBC would come back to haunt them, as Molesworth goes on to allude to from it being Philip Hinchcliffe who finally came to grief at the hands of the increasingly concerned BBC management it may well have been Robert Holmes in particular who by may have paid the heaviest price far as the seventies turned into the nineteen-eighties...
In fact this passing of the years and the shifting of the times is very much an important feature working in the background of Molesworth's odyssey through a television writers lifetime. It is well known that the continual grind of Doctor Who (re)writing took its toll on Holmes gradually, and with the unexpected departure of Hinchcliffe and a very happy working relationship the arrival of replacement Graham Williams is suggrested, rather too vaguely it has to be said, as being a turning point in for both Holmes and Doctor Who more ways than one. Although Molesworth is relatively coy on what Holmes impressions of the more submissive and compliant Graham Williams might have been the substance of the book makes it quite clear to even the most casual of readers that this is the point where something changed for Doctor Who... for all of his weighty focus on the effect and success of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe years the underpinning framework of Molesworth's study on theis era makes clear enough that theirs was also a natural continuation off the very same approach and symbiology of the previous Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts partnership that was so important to the success of the Jon Pertwee years, and one could take this same need for a professional and sympathetic approach to the series between Producer and Script Editor all the way back to Verity Lambert and David Whittaker. What arrives with Graham Williams, and Holmes replacement Anthony Read, although Molesworth never vocalises it, could be seen in hindsight as THE turning point for Doctor Who, quite aapart from what came after with John Nathan-Turner and his lack of any rapport with his script editor Eric Saward. For as olesworth points out, when Robert Holmes finally wrote his final script under Graham Williams' aigeis it marked the final contribution in an unbroken sequence of years stretching back to 1968. When Holmes left the offices for a return to freelance writing something else left with him in regrards to the ethos and spirit of Doctor Who...
Robert Holmes died in April 1986, aged 60, a result of of a sudden and serious Liver problem.
That this came during the single most toxic period in the shows entire fifty-four year history is not soething olesworth glosses over either. By the time Holmes finally returned to Doctor Who with 1984's The Caves of Androzani work was becoming harder to find for even the experienced and much valued, a changing television lanscape with an influx of new faces preferring newer talent for one reason, but also a vaguely defined suggestion from Molesworth and Bob's collegues of the time (Terrance Dicks and Chris Boucher for two) that Holmes was, for some reason unclear, persona non-grata at the BBC. Whatever the reality it would be Eric Saward who would fight the reluctant John Nathan-Turner for the return of Holmes to the series and history that would judge that to be one off this script-editor's few real successes. What would end up contributing to Holmes death is strongly implied to be the results of a devastating and gradual assault on both Doctor Who come 1985 from BBC controllers Michael Grade and Jonathan powell and a withering and extraordinary attack from powell in particular that took Holmes' script for the 1986 season as the basis for an utterly unprecedented critique of both script and by proxy the competence of all those involved... this is not at all to say that this is what killed Robert Holmes, but as is made clear in Moleworths account here it could not have come at a worse time for Robert Holmes as at a time when he would need all his strength he arguably had little left to offer after such a high ranking assault on the quality and competency of his work. And this then becomes the story of not just the fortunes of Robert Holmes, but the story of how come the 1980s British Television, and the BBC in particular, came to finally be undermined by the forces of capitalism and an ingress of top floor personnel far more concerned with themselves and their own prospects than with the requirements of a public service broadcaster.
Robert Holmes:A Life In Words isn't a perfect book. As I said above it suffers due to the lack of input from his surviving family and therefore quite often reads as far too assuming in its narrative, especially evident in the early chapters where the lack of firsthand sources lead to a few too many guesses and assumptions from the writer and very often based on nothing more than wild guessing. We are treated to a methodical breakdown of the mans work in the 1959s and early sixties and there are regular intermissions for a reproduction of some plot outline or commissioned piece for a series now no longer even in existence in the television vaults. Such banality is occasionally counter-balanced by Intriguing reveals such as the one wwhere Molesworth reveals that there were two scripts for Patrick Mcghoohan's Danger Man series that never saw the light of day, one still existing in Holmes files! And yet these dry early chapters are a task that has to be gotten through by both writer and reader, for as challenging as the early chapters are by the time the reader reaches Chapter Fourteen the journey will become worth it as those early installments inform the actual arrival of the Robert Holmes of which both Molesworth and the readership will surely be the most familiar with and who stands as the most accomplished. "When did Robert Holmes become Robert Holmes?" was the question earlier posed. Arguably, as Richard Molesworth will go to show here, 'Robert Holmes' as we understand him, arrives for the turn of 1970 thanks to the tutelage and sponsorship of Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, and gifts us all for the next decade with a continual flow of regular excellence and not a small amount of thrills and scares... no finer a testament is there to the man than the fact that his legacy, far from being forgotten, still stands today. And informs successive producers and script writers on the modernday series, and beyond.
There will never be a better and more detailed account of why and how the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years were made to be so incredibly successful, and remain so popular. As while Richard Molesworth's work herein will give full and entirely due credit to the ability and will of producers and script editors of the era it is also quite clear by the time he leaves and others follow that a major ingredient in that success and enduring strength is the work and dedication of Robert Holmes through those years. No greater tribute to the man's craft, and the talents of his fellows, will you read than this quietly brilliant book.
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