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Myth Maker - Donald Cotton Obituary

By Jon Preddle

While researching into the late Donald Cotton's life, I was somewhat surprised to read in a very well-known British Doctor Who magazine that Cotton had apparently died back in 1992! This appears to have been a mistake, given that Cotton died in January this year, aged 71.

Born in April 1928, Donald Cotton first studied to be a zoologist at Nottingham University, but turned to the arts after the Second World War. His acting career eventually gave way to writing and producing several successful musical revues and dramas for the Nottingham Playhouse. During the 1950s Cotton wrote for and appeared in numerous stage revues at the Guildhall School of Music.

Cotton's first TV work was The Merry Christmas, a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for ITV in 1955. His BBC debut was as a contributor to a late night revue show, Better Late! in 1958. This was followed by work as a writer for BBC radio's Third Programme.

Donald Cotton knew aspiring actor Donald Tosh through the Irving Theatre, Leicester Square. It was this association that brought Cotton into the world of Doctor Who, when he was one of the first writers Tosh contacted on assuming the position of story editor in early 1965.

Cotton's first contribution was The Myth Makers (commissioned by Tosh on 13 May 1965). Cotton was successful in persuading producer John Wiles to bring actor Max Adrian and composer Humphrey Searle over to work on the serial, both having worked on the Third Programme.

Although Cotton had a second script commissioned by Tosh on 30 November 1965, by the time The Gunfighters went before the cameras, Tosh had moved on and had been replaced by Gerry Davis. Despite a less than happy relationship with Davis, Cotton submitted a further idea, The Herdsmen of Aquarius (aka The Herdsmen of Venus), a story in which the Loch Ness Monster was revealed to be the cattle of Aquarian (or Venusian) farmers, but this was rejected by Gerry Davis.

After helping to develop the 1966 series Adam Adamant Lives! (which Verity Lambert produced after she left Doctor Who), Cotton grew disillusioned with working for television, and concentrated instead on the theatre. He achieved great success as a playwright and actor throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s. One play he penned, My Dear Gilbert, starred Jon Pertwee as Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

Retiring from acting in 1981, Cotton continued his writing career. Approached by Target Books in the mid-1980s to novelise his scripts for the Doctor Who book range, Cotton adapted both of his own stories, published in 1985, using an inspired ‘first person’ approach. He also adapted Dennis Spooner's scripts for The Romans in 1987 using a similar - if not altogether successful - style. Cotton also penned The Bodkin Papers, a book about a parrot, for Target around the same time.

Sources: The Doctor Who File; Doctor Who - The Sixties; Doctor Who Magazine #221, #284.

This item appeared in TSV 60 (June 2000).