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"I Worked on Doctor Who"

Chris Loates interview

By Nigel Windsor

[Chris Loates]Chris Loates is a former BBC vision controller who worked on many Doctor Who stories from the black and white stories of the sixties, right through to the high-tech look of the early eighties. Now living in New Zealand and working as a freelance lighting director, Chris spoke to TVNZ employee and TSV reader Nigel Windsor in October 1996 about his memories of working on Doctor Who on and off from the sixties to the eighties.

Chris Loates' New Zealand credits include providing the studio lighting for More Issues, the Billy T James Show and Shortland Street. Recently he has started lecturing once a week at Unitec in Auckland and he's just completed a video production of The Tempest for the Performing Arts School.

Nigel Windsor (NW): How did you get the job at the BBC?

Chris Loates (CL): I was studying physics and maths at technical college and a friend of mine answered an ad in the Radio Times for technical operators and tech assistants so he went along as he was a keen cameraman and musician. He came back and said the interview had gone very well and that I should apply for the job as well because I was very interested in photography and sound recording. So I was interviewed and got the job but didn't get good enough marks in my exam. I sat them privately three months later and the BBC was very good. They held the position open and I joined three months later.

I joined the BBC in 1964 as a cable puller, basically an operations trainee. I don't think I did Doctor Who that year, but I used to go in the studio and have a look and I'm sure William Hartnell was the Doctor as I swear I saw him in the studio as he was in something else at a later date and I recognised him.

Basically you started off with a bit of cable dragging, sound rigging, camera assisting and then a sound assistant and then you and a board decided which way you wanted to go. I was fascinated by electronic special effects but I knew I wanted to do lighting at that stage, so I put in for electronic special effects because it was a quick way to vision control and then to lighting. Vision control, by the way, is a job that involves adjusting the picture quality of the studio cameras. So I suppose about nine months later I actually became a camera operator. They had four people in the camera crew and one reserve and the reserve was a trainee, which was me, so if someone went sick you took their place and everyone shunted up.

NW: What was it like working for the BBC?

CL: I loved it, it was fabulous, the variety of work was incredible. I really did work on some good stuff; plays, Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, a lot of the old series that people have never heard of now but of course they ran for years and years. Things were in full swing then, and I did The Forsyte Saga, every one of them. That was a kind of 'golden era'. I also did Doctor Who. It was done in Studio D, which was on the second or third floor at Lime Grove.

The studio was quite old fashioned at the time; it was one of the later studios to be re-equipped. In fact it was sort of 'the Doctor Who studio'. They did stuff in there right up until 1968, I think, before it was shifted. Any effects that were required were done at a later time by a special unit, but of course later, with inlay, overlay and chromakey once colour came in it got a bit more sophisticated; it used to be done actually during the production which took a wee bit of time to line up sometimes.

NW: Did you have any contact with Verity Lambert?

CL: Not really no. The lighting control room was separate from the production control room and she was mainly in the production control room. I don't remember her doing the Doctor Who stuff, I didn't know who she was. I was too young and too new but subsequently I did an awful lot of plays with her and she went on to some very big stuff indeed.

I remember a lot of the directors though; Douglas Camfield, Waris Hussein. We used to see them on the floor when they would sort problems out, but mainly they would stay in the control room. If a problem couldn't be sorted or an actor needed some advice on how actually to act then the director would come down on the floor and just quietly have a word out of everyone else's earshot.

NW: At that time, was it very much an 'actors act, directors direct' kind of thing?

CL: Yes, it was very unionised in those days, very compartmented, you couldn't touch props, you couldn't move scenery, if you wanted a caption moved you had to get one of the scene guys to move it. It was ludicrous, it was slow, it was inefficient. That's all been changed but it took twenty years to do it. Once you got to know the guys, you could whip round and adjust it yourself, provided the union rep wasn't looking!

I did two Troughton stories, one with the Daleks and one with the Cybermen, I think. They lived in underground tunnels. I remember going down to look at the set under just normal studio house lighting and it looked reasonably scary and the Cybermen were fairly elegant creatures. They were pretty smartly decked out in their aluminium suits. Once you got the actual TV lighting on it and with selected camera shots, it was pretty scary stuff. They used to have these cobweb machines and spray cobwebs all over the place.

NW: Did you ever work with the Yeti?

CL: I don't recall working on a Yeti story although I do remember them. I always remember the Daleks. One or two of the Daleks were actually manned by 'vertically challenged' people. The other one may have been remote controlled, but it had pretty limited movements, forwards and backwards and sideways but I'm pretty sure it was just used as an extra. The main leader Daleks were actually manned from inside.

NW: How were the model sequences done?

CL: Very often the model sequences were done first. We would light and record those fairly early in the morning and the actors would come in slightly later. It was quite a business even doing the models, lighting it and getting the effects right. If there was any continuity of light, which was rare, you had to carry it over. It was always very important to get the scale of the models looking right too; not too small, not too big otherwise it tended to destroy the illusion.

Star backgrounds were amazingly difficult to get looking right. You couldn't just punch holes in a piece of black card, it just doesn't work. Stars have to be different sizes or placed in clusters or groups. In some ways I think the best of the Doctor Who and Blake's 7 models were, in a lot of ways better back then than the modern cinema does today. The models can look very 'model-ish' and also the size and scale of them hasn't really been taken into account in the overall story.

NW: Were the model sequences done on film or video?

CL: A lot of the models were shot on film and transferred on to videotape at a later date because it was easier to do at Ealing Film Studios with a five person crew rather than tying up a whole studio with a much bigger crew, so economics played a big part there. We didn't seem to do too many model sequences so they may have been done on film at Ealing. We did some in the studio because of the electronic special effects they could manipulate video tape better than film without resorting to mattes, etc.

Mat Irvine was an extremely well-known model maker. I only met him once very briefly. He came into the studio on one of the productions I was doing and I went onto the studio floor with the lighting director to learn something, because I didn't know how to approach lighting models and I found out we had cars as a common interest as well as TV productions.

NW: Did you do any location work?

CL: No, I was strictly studio unfortunately, which was a bit inhibiting on one's work. When they filmed outside, very often they recorded stuff on a large beach called Camber Sands which has dunes and sea in the backgrounds and you can rope off areas for filming. I think a lot of the sequences were done down there. They also used the BBC training centre at Wood Norton in Worcestershire. It had a very old ancestral house on it and some very nice grounds indeed as well as some grotty-looking army huts which would have been extremely useful.

NW: Can you remember going to colour with the Pertwee era?

CL: Yes, the first time I did a Pertwee I was doing special effects. Several months or a year later I was on vision control. I did more than a couple with Pertwee including some special effects. We were into colour then and I remember doing some fairly tricky overlay sequences through a window. They wanted things to happen through a window, and I recall having to get the camera to hold the shot of the window. Then I cut out a mask, exactly to the size of the window and the camera had to be very careful how it moved so the action didn't move outside this so-called cut-out window. I saw it go to air and it worked very well indeed.

NW: Was there any interaction with the production team and actors?

CL: No. You really didn't talk to the actors at all unless they talked to you. You didn't disturb the actors while they were on set unless they spoke to you for a specific request, although I noticed a lot of the senior camera operators and the second assistant directors got to know the cast.

Jon Pertwee was very friendly indeed, and some of the younger cast was also extremely friendly. I think the actors liked to get to know the crew basically over a length of time as a rapport developed and it all helps with the production knowing what people want, how they like to work.

All I remember (of Jon Pertwee) was that he went into the cafeteria and he didn't take off his costume. They all stayed more or less in their costumes, which used to give the costume people a headache because they were worried they'd spill something on them but it was better to do that than have them undress and redress again. Very often they would give them capes or smocks to put over their costumes to protect them.

I distinctly remember doing one production with the Brigadier. We used to see him in the cafeteria quite a bit. Nicholas Courtney had a very long run in Doctor Who. I seem to remember seeing him consistently for some time. In the cafeteria the technical staff sat together and the actors sat together but it was the same cafeteria, so you 'rubbed shoulders' with the famous!

Looking back, for me I think Jon Pertwee was the best, and the most endearing as the Doctor, he really put his all into the character and was a perfectionist actor. He really liked things to be right. Again time constraints were still a problem and the pressure used to tell sometimes.

NW: Was it always a battle for time?

CL: Yes, particularly on some of the effects. I think they were compromised a bit. If they didn't work properly very often there was only time for perhaps one re-take and that's it, they had to move on. Most episodes were done in two days I think, a Friday and a Saturday. Sometimes they'd rehearse/record because of the action sequences it was the easiest way to do it. They would rehearse a segment then record that. In the really early days I think they used to go out live, or maybe it was recorded as live, probably on very old 2-inch video tape. If something went wrong you only stopped in an emergency.

NW: Would you say it was a particularly happy show to work on?

CL: Yes, I think it was a happy show, mainly because people put a lot of time and effort into it, the model makers, the make-up people, the costume designers all put an enormous amount of work into it. They do with most productions, but Doctor Who was a very long running series indeed.

NW: When you worked on the Pertwee stories, how did it compare to the Hartnell stories? Did you notice any more pressure?

CL: I don't think there was any more pressure. Everyone worked hard at their job but I didn't ever know of anyone struggling to make it look good, it just 'seemed' to look good. Some of the models we used to see on film were a little bit dicey. We saw them in isolation of course; they were quite comical in a way. I remember a giant spider or fly. It really did look quite comical in the way it moved and the way it was constructed, which was just out of very light painted canvas over a frame and we did actually giggle at it! But when it was cut into the story and you only saw brief shots of it, it actually worked extremely well.

NW: Were people very serious about working on the show or was it treated as a bit of a joke?

CL: Nobody ever treated it as a joke. It was a very serious business or it wouldn't have worked. I think Doctor Who's greatest fans were the young people in those days, and I don't think you can laugh at them because children are very severe critics of television. One had to take the job very seriously. It didn't matter what production you were doing, you tended to take it seriously and make the very best of it you possibly could.

NW: Was the chromakey, or CSO (Colour Separation Overlay) process, a new thing then?

CL: The equipment was still quite crude in a way with vertically mounted cameras and you had to get the electronic 'timings' (adjustments) exactly right. Everything had a black edge, or a blue cast round it which gave away that it was in fact chromakey. A lot of lighting directors actually put orange or yellow light on the scene to reduce the blue cast around things.

NW: An example of this can be seen in The Claws of Axos inside the Axon spaceship. Whenever the cast walk up to the CSO screen they get bathed in this orange light. Did it work?

CL: No it didn't! Basically it was caused by poor electronic switching. The technology just couldn't cope with what was demanded of it. CSO was not just the BBC's name for chromakey; there is a subtle difference. I believe CSO was devised by a BBC engineer who actually separated out the various colours and electronically manipulated them. I remember it because I was asked the question by the interview board for a position I went for and I couldn't correctly answer it!

NW: Did lighting directors have a big say in the production?

CL: They had a lighting director and a technical manger. Either the technical manager or the director would give the call if a shot wasn't good or if there was a bump or something. The lighting director rarely interfered in that sort of sphere. They were too tied up with the lighting, the quality of the vision and the colour. Sound was left to the sound supervisor. Although the lighting directors were the team leaders they usually left people to manage their individual sections very much.

I had to admire the BBC lighting directors. They really made the studio stuff look realistic and quite frightening. The studio they originally did it in had a fairly low ceiling and they tended to stick to single storey sets just on the studio floor but very often they used to shoot off the top of the set because of the shots they wanted. So they started putting up extra scenery so the cameras could get a lower elevation and shoot up higher and that was the first time I had seen that on a TV programme.

They used to see the same crews week after week so they knew what was expected and it helped with efficiency if they knew what shots the directors were after, what the director's style was and they fitted into the mould fairly easily.

I think the ones I did were sort of by default if someone went sick. You generally worked with the same vision supervisor. The same vision controllers worked together, and the same camera crew always went round as that crew. They were rarely divided up. It was the same with the sound crew. They were known as 'Crew 13', for example, and 'Crew 13' did Doctor Who.

One of the interesting things that we had to do on the programme was to try and match the film which had been shot earlier on location to the studio stuff. We had a unit that could alter the colours and 'gain' (brightness) and the 'black level' (grey scale) on the film to try and make it match studio colours. The film had all been edited so you saw the version as it would be transmitted. I would attempt to grade it and I would refine it the second time around during the final run-through. The vision supervisor would give his approval and the lighting director would have a look to see if it matched reasonably well to the studio pictures and if everyone was happy then we'd record that directly onto video and it was recorded on to the tape that would be edited later on. It would give the actors a bit of continuity as they could see it on the studio floor. They could keep thread of the story and their lines. Very often the film cameraman would come in and advise on the exact colour of the original scene and that was extremely useful. They used to tell us about how the shoot went on location but they also wanted to see that we didn't make a horrendous mess of their film and falsify the colour too much. I think the lighting director used to appreciate the location cameraman coming in as well. We always graded the skin tones for neutral Caucasian appearance. That was general BBC policy.

Actors who were in regular work at the BBC used to pop up and have a look at the lighting control room to see how the pictures were and how it would look 'on the box'. Although they had monitors on the floor that they could look at, not too many actors tended to eyeball the monitors because it distracted their eyeline.

The make up artists and costume supervisors, such as Christine Rawlins, used to come into the lighting room to look at the monitors because we had the most accurately colour adjusted monitors. They would come in and see how the costumes would look on screen and they would chat between themselves and the lighting directors, and we got in on the conversation as well. Let's take Leela as an example. She was partially clad, so all other parts of her exposed body would have to have been made up otherwise you'd notice a difference in skin tones, and the exposure and lighting would show up these defects.

NW: The lighting of the interior of the TARDIS always looks slightly different in each story. Do you remember how the TARDIS was lit?

CL: Maybe that was because they used different lighting directors who'd have their own ideas, so you'd get slightly different variations in style. I believe a few floor lights were used to get light shining through horizontally and obviously lights hanging above.

NW: A lot of the later episodes have come in for fan criticism for a flat, overall style of lighting.

CL: That may have been the director's call that they wanted it 'blanket' lit, but it's not my style of lighting, it doesn't add to the drama of the scene. It's not so much what you can see but what you can't see that instils fear in people. One of my favourite sci-fi films is Alien. It's what you can't see that's scary. You just catch glimpses of this horrific creature.

NW: Was it particularly difficult doing vision control on Doctor Who?

CL: No more tricky than any other programme as you know yourself, vision control really isn't an easy job. You have to be a technician and an artist, and subtlety is the name of the game. The most difficult vision control I used to do was on the dramas like Shakespeare and you have to be particularly precise. One particular lighting director was very demanding.

NW: So how did they actually record Doctor Who? If they messed up a take, did they go over it?

CL: They tended to keep everything. It was very rare that takes were erased. Sometimes the director would want to take some shots from one take and another few shots from another take but they would try and do it all in one block. The actors preferred that for the continuity and for the flow. If you take shots from different takes you can get continuity errors. For example, extras in the back of shot may not be quite in the same position in different takes and they can magically 'disappear' or 'appear' when the takes are edited together. You also have to be extremely careful that props are in exactly the right position. This was difficult with actors who wore capes or anything that swirled around because if you cut from one take to another you would get a slight jump. So they tried to run blocks at a time and take the whole block.

NW: Does any particular director stand out as being particularly good?

CL: Douggie Camfield. I was very young and didn't know too much about TV. He was a person who was extremely efficient, he had a very good rapport with the actors. I think he used to go on the floor more often and get the nuances of acting that he wanted just right, and his choice of shots used to impress me and his cutting style was very good. I had an array of monitors that I could look at. As a trainee if I wasn't too busy you could see the continuity of shots that he was going to cut to. Some of the sequences were extremely fast cuts. The cameramen and boom swingers had to move very quickly to get their frame and focus before they were cut to, particularly in some of the fight sequences.

I remember Barry Letts, too. He directed quite a few. I seem to recall he did a lot of fight sequences - he seemed particularly good at that. He was a good director. I remember he went on to drama. Certain directors seemed to have a specialty. The BBC seemed to have a particular talent at using people for what they were good at and excelled at.

NW: Was it quite a prestigious job in those days, working for the BBC?

CL: Yes, but I wouldn't say it was now. There are other private companies that produce good work. The BBC has been under attack from politicians and they've gradually cut the funding and that's caused their demise. It's a great shame. having re-visited the place in 1992 it wasn't the place that I knew it to be. Productions were cut back. Lime Grove where the original Doctor Who's were done had been demolished which as quite sad. It was quite a landmark really.

Only the TV centre plus a couple of outlying studios were going. I knew a few people who were still there; some lighting people, cameramen, some sound people, but very few of the administration people. It's very much a young man's industry. Designers tended to be on contracts per production. I met an assistant designer and a props person, who were on contracts as short as 3 months, which I don't think is a good thing because you don't tend to get continuity of work if you have a long running series. Some of the script writers have gone onto far greater things, of course. It was obviously a very good ground for budding script writers with imagination.

NW: When you were making the series did you have any ideas of its popularity?

CL: We had no idea it would become a cult, although we knew it had good viewing figures.

NW: How did staff at the BBC regard working on the programme? Was it ever considered a training ground?

CL: It wasn't ever considered a training ground technically. Perhaps the model makers or costumes people had a few hiccups because of the complexity of the costumes. There were some pretty hideous creatures that you would see in the canteen quite often, and walking about the place, and of course you knew they were from Doctor Who because there was no other comparable sci-fi programme being made at the time. I did see K9 a couple of times too. That was when I went back in 1979. I saw it in the studio and the scenery storage area as well. It looked as good in real life as it did on screen.

I spent most of the seventies in New Zealand. I left England in late 1972 and returned in 1979. The production had got fairly sophisticated by then. Complex special effects had been introduced and they were using a Quantel Paintbox. Laser guns and rays were done on this machine in post production. That meant the studio work was a lot simpler because you weren't doing the complex special effects, still, you had to be careful that if someone shot a gun it didn't cut across someone. Very often the special effects supervisor would look in on the production as well to avoid any problems he may have later in post production. If the effects were not too difficult they could be done as the programme was being recorded.

I worked on two stories around that time. Tom Baker was a very different personality from Pertwee. I had worked with Jon Pertwee on other productions and I liked him, I found he was always very enthusiastic about his roles. I'm not saying Tom Baker wasn't, but to me subsequent Doctors were not quite as eccentric or believable as Tom Baker's predecessors. I also remember Terence Dudley. I probably did one story in '79 and one in '80 or '81. I used to see Colin Baker too, in the cafeteria.

NW: Do you remember John Nathan-Turner?

CL: Yes. I remember him as a floor manager prior to 1972 and I was very pleased to see him producing in later years. He was a very affable person, a true gentleman full of enthusiasm. Even as a floor assistant he was very enthusiastic. He was a person who planned his stuff very carefully and he knew exactly what he wanted and didn't seem to have too much trouble getting it. I knew him to say hello to, but unfortunately he was always too busy. I knew him prior to 1972 better than I knew him in the eighties as a producer. As I was a vision controller at the time I had no need to talk to him; that was done through the lighting director.

NW: Do you enjoy watching Doctor Who as a programme?

CL: The thing that I liked about Doctor Who was they would credit the viewer with intelligence. The viewer was never talked down to, and I would hate to see America do that to Doctor Who with the new movie. I'd hate to see them do to Doctor Who what they have done to Batman for instance and produce the same sort of genre.

After looking at the book The Seventies I'm actually stunned by the sets and the costumes. I think when you're used to doing productions of this ilk and this standard, you tend to loose sight of the fact that the quality that was produced with really, the minimal amount of money, the sets, make-up, costume and lighting was just fantastic.

NW: So what do you think went wrong with Doctor Who towards the end?

CL: I don't think anything actually 'went wrong'. The expense would have been a major consideration. They would've had to keep pace with technology, with what was coming in at the cinema, what was being shown on programmes like Buck Rogers, and that would have depleted the budget resources quite considerably. The handmade costumes would also have been extremely expensive to make.

I think a lot of the later sci-fi films stole their ideas from early TV series like Doctor Who. I think the kids who were Doctor Who's main audience matured faster than the series kept pace. Perhaps the object was not to keep pace and go the other way; the old theatrical instead of the hi-tech style. Clearly it didn't work. JNT decided to go ahead with the hi-tech look which was a very good idea, but they'd probably lost their audience by then.

I thought Doctor Who would have been a good money-spinner for the BBC, although I assume the profits would have gone to BBC Enterprises, not back into the production. The production would've had to ask for more and more money each year. When I was back in 1992 the style of the productions they were doing in the studios just do not take the finance that a Doctor Who production would have taken. I don't think they would dream of coughing up the finance for that now unless it was backed by an American or Asian company who obviously would want input into the story, which would ultimately destroy the whole genre of Doctor Who.

The BBC now do either low budget, run of the mill stuff like quiz shows or they go for high budget, film productions with co-partners to share the risks, like Pride and Prejudice. Doctor Who really had such a good run. It really was a quality, well thought-out production with damn good script writers, very good model makers and actors and was a credit to all who worked on it. It's like all long-running series; people slag it off and get sick of it but when you look back and analyse it more objectively, it was good, it was great, it was fabulous.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).