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What the Radio Said

John Giacobbi Interviewed

In early October 1991, Maggie Barry interviewed John Giacobbi, the Managing Director of Entertainment Law Associates, on New Zealand's National Radio programme about the plans by a group of fans to take the BBC to court to get Doctor Who back in production.

The interview was transcribed by Paul Scoones from a recording supplied by Palmerston North club members Adam Moffitt and Alan Higgins. The interview began and ended with the Doctor Who theme music (1980 version).

Maggie Barry: There's nothing like it; the spooky music, the Daleks and the Time Lord. Passions are running high in the United Kingdom about Doctor Who. Something like quarter of a century the series has been a top rater with a cult following, and yet since 1989 it's been off the air. The BBC haven't really given a satisfactory answer to the fans of Doctor Who as to why they won't make another series, and the fans have decided to take it into their own hands and they're taking the Beeb to court. They're accusing the BBC of amongst other things, of smug indifference, blatant apathy and insensitivity. Yes, all this and more for the British Broadcasting Corporation. But what is the substance of the case? I've been joined on the line by John Giacobbi who's the managing director of Entertainment Law Associates - that's the firm coordinating the legal action. He's a spokesman for the Doctor Who Committee. John Giacobbi, welcome to the programme.

John Giacobbi: Hello there, Maggie.

MB: What's the legal substance to your challenge to get the BBC to make another series of Doctor Who?

JG: Well basically there are two strands to the legal attack. The BBC as you know are in quite a unique position vis-à-vis the viewers in as much as the viewers actually pay for the BBC's funding through the licence fee system which I'm not too sure if you have that in New Zealand...

MB: Indeed we do.

JG: Which as you appreciate is a compulsory fee which we have to pay so because of that we are going to try and assert a fiduciary duty to the viewers who actually fund them. So what we're going to be attempting to ascertain is the fact that there's a trust in existence between the BBC and the viewers - and they have to spend our money in a diligent and reasonable manner; and the other strand to the attack is the fact that the BBC is a public corporation and both under statute and common law, offices of a public body have to exercise a reasonableness and diligence in making their decisions. So as you pointed out in your introduction, that the series has been running for twenty-five years and is famous the world over, and on top of which makes a profit, one has to bring their judgement into question, and we can actually do so by means of a judicial review.

MB: Perhaps though, it's done its dash, this series of Doctor Who?

JG: Not at all. I mean, the series has been, as I said, on for twenty-five years and even latterly although the budget for Doctor Who programmes was substantially cut by the BBC and the quality then went down as a result - and that's something which also the fans are very concerned about - but even not withstanding that, the viewing figures opposite Coronation Street, which is a very famous programme here in England - I think you might have it over there as well...

MB: Oh, they're big fanatics. If they tried to take Coronation Street off the air there'd be lawsuits aplenty from every corner of the globe!

JG: Well even opposite Coronation Street and with a drastically reduced budget, the viewing figures were four million, which is greater than the viewing figures for Wogan, which is a big kind of interview series in England. So the popularity of it is still very, very much there.

MB: Just picking up on that point about the four million viewers, John, the BBC say that the ratings have slumped, that it's no longer as popular as it was and that they feel that with poor plots and all the rest of it and with a dwindling audience that the time is right to cut the cord of Doctor Who.

JG: Well then again, this whole fallacy about four million being a bad figure - everything's relative - relative to what Doctor Who used to get, the figure is bad, and they used to get sometimes double that when the productions were properly funded, but then again, relative to everything else that's on the air, four million is an extremely good figure and it's still a very profitable series. In fact in the current BBC video charts for home retail sale there are two Doctor Who videos in the top ten so the BBC are actually making a lot of money out of it, so again one has to question whether they've made a correct judgement in trying to axe the series.

MB: One of the things that interests me about your argument is really the underlying point as to whether a programme has a life of its own, whether a programme can become like a sort of a Frankenstein and sort of take over and have an importance beyond its twenty minutes of non-commercial airtime. Why does Doctor Who have the right to do that over and above for example other programmes that have been axed over the decades?

JG: Well apart from the kind of evergreen popularity, and again the fact that it's financially viable, Doctor Who has a very special place in a lot of people's hearts in as much as it was one of the very first science fiction programmes on television, in fact a lot of people such as myself grew up with Doctor Who throughout their childhood and so when television first started this was one of the first very popular programmes. It's been with us ever since. I mean if one looks to America, to Star Trek for example, it's a very good corollary. The Americans are unfortunately much better at exploiting things, and are much more promotionally-minded than us Brits, and as you can see Star Trek is still going as a new series, they've made several motion pictures of it, and they've merchandised it far better than the BBC have done, and again the BBC have a very valuable property in Doctor Who and we feel it's been very underexploited. In fact, one of the things that has been put to the BBC is that if they're not interested anymore, then fine, let someone else produce the series for them, because there are lots of independent film and TV companies who'd only jump at the opportunity to be able to produce the series.

MB: We'll take up that point in a moment, but just getting back to the idea of Star Trek and the fact that that has enjoyed a long life under the American influence. Now I've followed Doctor Who and Star Trek, and it seems to me that Star Trek has been diluted, it's not the programme it was, it's in fact a pale imitation and the endless movies and paraphernalia and merchandise that came out of it are just cheapening the original, really, and I'd rather that they'd cut Star Trek off at its prime and at least kept the quality. Doesn't that argument apply in some way to Doctor Who also?

JG: Ah, well Doctor Who is in more of a unique position in as much as throughout the years there have been several Doctor Who characters - Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker - the series has managed to survive not withstanding the fact that Doctor Who - the character himself - has changed actors throughout the years whereas with Star Trek literally the whole cast grew so old that they had virtually to be replaced. It lost more of the credibility, but Doctor Who actually has a history of changing characters over the years which previously was very successful, although latterly, again in the view of all the Doctor Who fans in Britain, and in fact overseas as well, we feel that the cut budget has resulted in bad production and also that the characters themselves haven't lived up to their former images, such as Jon Pertwee who is a very, very good actor, a very fine actor, whereas the Doctor Who's latterly have been a bit too young and yuppie-ish for our view.

MB: But Pertwee wanted out of the programme. I guess that's the trouble with these long-running things, it has to change, it has to take on a new dimension. Maybe the new people, the younger viewers actually like the new aspects of it better than the old. I wonder how subjective all of this is, and if the diehard fans of the series aren't just crying for something that's been and gone already?

JG: To counter that, I'd actually point out. that in the Doctor Who clubs in the United Kingdom alone there are several thousand members, and in the States as well, and I'm sure there will be in New Zealand and Australia, but the membership actually encompasses a very broad cross-section from kids and the pre-teenagers right the way through to people in their forties who as I say would have grown up with Doctor Who from day one.

MB: But what is Doctor Who these days? What is it? I mean it's changed so much. What is the essential Doctor Who that people want to have back?

JG: The golden era was probably the Jon Pertwee era, because in the era of science fiction, the Daleks and the Cybermen and other creatures of that nature were very thrilling for people to watch and to a certain extent these days it's slightly naive, but I think people enjoy that naivety, the simplicity of Doctor Who. There's no blood and guts and violence - it's pure science fiction.

MB: I wonder if it's going to be a very difficult thing even if you win your case, to get the quality so that everybody agrees with it; to get the plots and the style of the programme exactly right?

JG: We're actually very confident because the legal proceedings which we're about to institute against the BBC are just one element of a multi-pronged attack, as it were, against the BBC which will encompass TV appearances, public demonstrations - I mean there are various things, and at the end we're very confident we'll win. In fact, one of the things which is happening in the UK which we might well extend to yourselves overseas is a raffle of original Doctor Who props such as Cyberman heads and Daleks which the funds from which will be used to fight the BBC and then at the end if we have a profit, all our funds are then going to be donated to a charity, the Romanian AIDS babies. So we want to take a broad view on the thing to get a public swell of opinion.

MB: What's the attitude of the Beeb towards contracting out the programme and letting an independent production company do it? My understanding was that they weren't too adverse to that concept?

JG: Unfortunately, there have been various approaches to them in the past, but we feel - and the associated Doctor Who clubs - that they haven't been taken that seriously. In fact, the BBC haven't even had the courtesy to reply to some of the approaches in writing. Even, as we say, there are very many people in both the UK and America who can see the financial viability of taking on the Doctor Who series, and if the BBC doesn't want to do it then we'll find people who will pay them to licence the right to make the series.

MB: If it's so cut and dried John, why doesn't the BBC see it that way? If it was viable, if it's so good and there's the following, it's surprising that they're not jumping to make another series.

JG: This is one of the great mysteries of our time, Maggie. This is what we've been trying to find out for the last couple of years - why exactly they're being so complacent about the whole thing, and as I said, this whole current action is nothing new, it's been the combination of the best part of two years of frustration on behalf of Doctor Who fans worldwide in trying to find out why they won't relaunch it and what their plans are for the future and they've now come to the end of their tether, which is why they're going to take this legal action.

MB: Anyway, good luck, John Giacobbi, thanks for joining us. The managing director of the firm coordinating the legal action: John Giacobbi, a lawyer on the line from London. Doctor Who, it gets them going every time. We'll keep you posted as to what happens with that particular court case, whether the Beeb wins or whether the Doctor Who fans win...

This item appeared in TSV 25 (October 1991).