Daleks, doctors and a dog called Goliath

He is, quite simply, one of the 'godfathers' of Dr Who. Terrance Dicks, bound for the Essex Book Festival, tells Steven Russell about writing for Daleks and rag-dolls, Crossroads and Cybermen TERRANCE Dicks was one of the creative geniuses who scared millions of children witless in the 1970s.

Steven Russell

He is, quite simply, one of the 'godfathers' of Dr Who. Terrance Dicks, bound for the Essex Book Festival, tells Steven Russell about writing for Daleks and rag-dolls, Crossroads and Cybermen

TERRANCE Dicks was one of the creative geniuses who scared millions of children witless in the 1970s. As script editor of Dr Who during the golden age of Jon Pertwee he helped heighten the teatime terror factor as we took refuge behind cushions from killer shop-dummies, Sea Devils, a gargoyle-like creature with wings, and giant maggots.

He went on to pen more than 60 Dr Who novelisations - a sideline that, he acknowledges with an authentic East End chuckle, proved a nice little earner. It also spawned an unexpected writing career: his extensive canon of children's books includes series about clever crime-busting children, the adventures of a golden retriever named Goliath, horror stories featuring vampires, and the escapades of a cuddly toy called T.R. Bear.

There was a time, he jests, when he felt he was morphing into Enid Blyton.

Terrance Dicks is now in his 70s and not particularly looking for work. But it keeps coming.

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Last year he was asked to write for the Quick Reads series - bite-sized books for adults who have lost or never had the reading habit, or for avid readers wanting a fast fix. Doctor Who: Made of Steel was a Cyberman story. “Much to my surprise,” he laughs, “they asked me to do another one.”

Doctor Who: Revenge of the Judoon is the latest offering. The Doctor and assistant Martha are pitted against brutal extraterrestrial mercenaries.

In many ways it brings his writing career full circle. He started penning Dr Who stories for Target in the 1970s and has now produced a couple in the 21st Century.

“When the novelisations first came out, teachers and other people were fairly sniffy about them, saying they were not proper books, but then they discovered that lots of kids that wouldn't normally read books would read a Dr Who one,” he recalls.

The Target link-up began when Richard Henwood had to buy the rights to stories and found three old hardback Dr Who books whose novelisations had not been done particularly well.

“He published them in paperback and they sold like hot cakes,” says the former grammar school boy. “Being no fool, he got a licence from the BBC to novelise Dr Who and then turned up at the office and said 'I need more Dr Who books! Who's going to write them?' And despite never having written a book before, I immediately said I would.

“A group of us did them. Gradually the other people dropped out and purely by chance - it wasn't a fiendish plot or anything - I found myself doing nearly all of them. The money they were paying then wasn't as good as television money; and, also, scriptwriters find it hard work to write those. One of them said it was like digging trenches.”

It seemed to come naturally to him, though. Terrance's name is on the cover of 68 adaptations, he thinks.

“It's not that easy - I always get cross when people say it's a piece of cake - but you do of course have the story and dialogue, which is a huge help. On the other hand, a script tells you what people say and what they do; it doesn't tell you what they feel or what the atmosphere is.

“All this work, which on TV is done by a huge team of professionals - a cameraman, director, actors - you have to do yourself in the book. My aim was always to make reading the book seem as if you were playing the television serial in your head.”

As Dr Who became increasingly popular in America so sales of the book rose.

“I had this brief period when it appeared to be raining money on me. By then I'd left the BBC and gone freelance, so I had what every freelance needs, which is a steady stream of work. Unfortunately, I fell into the classic trap, which is that the money I got for the books was pre-tax money, and the tax bills arrive much, much later - by which time you've spent most of the money!

“This is a classic showbusiness story; we all fall for it. I had a period when the income was going down and the tax bills were going up. Eventually I managed to get them into balance, so things have been OK for a long time now.”

Terrance Dicks was born in East Ham, London, in 1935. After graduating from Cambridge, and following two years of national service, he spent three or four years as an advertising copywriter, promoting “dog-food, shampoo - nothing terribly exciting”.

He took the job because he'd always yearned to be a writer. “My school career, such as it was, was 'top of the class in English, middle to bottom in everything else', so there was never any doubt about it. But how do you start to be a writer?”

A friend in the ad business suggested copywriting. “I was also broke and needed to earn some money. I thought that would do for a while I looked around. Unfortunately, I turned out to be quite good at it and spent several years in it.”

A lucky break arrived. He was renting a room in a house owned by TV scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke and got to know him. “One day he said to me 'I'm a bit stuck, Terrance. They've asked me to write an Avengers and I haven't got any ideas. Have you?'”

The lodger didn't need asking twice. He and his landlord wrote three episodes together for The Avengers, the stylish and surreal 1960s adventure series.

“He was a very kind and generous man was Mac. He insisted on treating it as a 50/50 partnership and we split the money. I'd have done them for nothing, to get my name on the screen and for the experience! Those are my first television credits.”

Mac engineered an introduction to the team at Crossroads, the motel-based drama known for its wobbly scenery, “and I discovered I had this ghastly talent for soap opera”.

Terrance feared he might get stuck in soapland, but one of his fellow writers, Derrick Sherwin, had left and become script editor of Dr Who. When Derrick wanted to move on from that job, he had to find a replacement before he could quit. “I think he had one or two goes that didn't work out, and then more or less in desperation he just phoned me up one day and said 'How would you like to be script editor of Dr Who?'“

Well, yes please . . . though Terrance was convinced his time with the Tardis would be shortlived.

“I thought they'd fire me after three months - when the trial contract was up - but I was freelance by then and it was three months' guaranteed money, so . . .”

As we now know, it instead came to shape his life.

He joined during season six in 1968, just in time for the Cybermen's attempted invasion of the planet. (Their climbing out of London's sewers is an iconic image.) The recorder-playing Patrick Troughton regenerated after that series into a dandier Doctor and Terrance script-edited until the end of the Pertwee era in the mid-1970s.

The script editor would liaise closely with the producer and commission writers to dream up the episodes, holding in-depth talks about what each story involved. Then, when the script arrived, it had to be nursed through the production process like a growing infant.

A fair amount of re-writing was called for. Sections might turn out to be too long or too short, and have to be modified. Sometimes a scene wouldn't work and had to be re-written. Sometimes the budget didn't stretch to the writer's vision and a cheaper way had to be found to achieve a similar effect.

“The important thing in television is script delivery date, because on a certain date the director joins, bringing with him a large and expensive entourage. If the scripts aren't there, he can do nothing - and he hasn't got enough time anyway.”

Writers were thus chosen carefully; but, even so, usually had to be chased to hit their deadline. “Writers are erratic characters: lying, treacherous and devious - and I say this as one myself. I used to say I knew all the excuses because I'd used them myself!”

In 1974, when Pertwee made way for the scarf-wearing, Jelly Baby-eating Tom Baker, Dicks wrote the season-opening adventure, Robot. He wrote other stories during the Baker reign and in 1983 penned the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors.

And then there are all those other books . . .

In 1976 came a trilogy about a fresh recruit to the Canadian Mounted Police. The early summer of 1978 saw the first of 10 books starring The Baker Street Irregulars: four contemporary children who brought villains to justice in a manner befitting Sherlock Holmes.

The 1980s saw six horror tales for youngsters, followed by an 180-degree change of tone with a number of books for very young children, including the plucky rag-doll Sally Ann and a St Bernard named Harvey.

“There was a time - and I wasn't particularly fond of it, in a sense - when the market was for books for the younger children; for the eight to 12s,” he confirms. “I found myself writing books about teddy-bears and things, which isn't my natural level. I was always getting stories sent back for being too complicated! But when you're freelance you have to earn a living and you do the job where the money is.”

The first in the 12-strong series The Unexplained was published in 1996. (One, The Borley Rectory Incident, has a Suffolk flavour.) The tales are about a teenager whose father is a scientist conducting paranormal investigations.

Judging by his prodigious output, he must be in tune with youthful imagination.

“It's mine, you see,” he laughs. “All my children are now grown up” - he and wife Elsa, a former teacher, have three sons - “and I don't see any children; I haven't yet got grandchildren, so I guess I must be capable of getting to the level of an eight-year-old occasionally! My main ambition has always been to keep the reader turning the page, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger.”

What does writing do for him?

“It's a job.” Come on! We don't buy that. “I've always been a professional writer, earning by and large a very good living, but there came a period when things slackened off a bit and got quiet - this has now ended, strangely enough, and I'm very busy again - but in that period I was quite happy doing nothing.

“I used to sit with my feet up and watch television. I didn't have any compulsive urge to write. Someone once said 'What gives you the urge to write?' and I said 'An advance and a contract!'

“It's always been a job to me, and I like doing it and take pride in doing it as well as I can, but I don't do it for fun or to express my great thoughts!”

Terrance thought he'd be able to kick back after finishing Revenge of the Judoon, but then someone asked him to convert into CD audio format the two Dr Who stageplays he'd written.

“Where I am now is I'm not actively looking for work. I'm reasonably comfortable, touchwood, but if it comes along I'll do it. I've still got the freelance mentality of 'Never turn down a job . . .'”

Terrance Dicks's appearance at the Essex Book Festival is at Brentwood County High School on March 12, at 7.30pm. Box office: 01206 573948.

TERRANCE Dicks doesn't at all mind going back in time and having a good chinwag about Dr Who. “I owe it so much,” he says. “Whatever reputation I've got is tied up with it.”

He enjoys the modern TV series.

“It's different, of course; the main difference being the 45-minute self-contained stories, generally. We used to do four or six-part serials and we had a bit of 'space' - and time for what Jon Pertwee used to call his 'moments of charm!'

“These days it's very good; I enjoy it very much and have huge admiration for Russell T Davies, who brought it back with such great success. But these days it whizzes along: pow, pow, pow; it's in your face, fast-moving - partly because they're working in a short length and partly because I think the modern audience hasn't the same attention span and if you don't keep hitting them with climax after climax they may feel a bit bored.”

The new audience has brought a welcome windfall, with the BBC issuing the old series on DVD - “what we like to call the classic era. DVDs have extras: on-screen commentary or interviews, or a little documentary. I've done a vast number of these. It's been a nice little earner. So I'm extremely grateful to Who.”

The Dicks home in Hampstead is bulging at the seams with books, videos and DVDs. He's a voracious reader, often devouring a book a day, and also loves the screen. “I sit up late watching old film noirs until 1 o'clock in the morning, and that keeps me perfectly happy.”

What of today's TV?

“I think it's dumbing down, I really do. Although I started in soaps, I don't like the way soaps are going now. I don't watch any. All you get are misery and melodrama all the time. I grew up in the East End, but I can't watch EastEnders because everybody has a really terrible time.

“I hate reality shows. I can't stand Big Brother or any of those kinds of thing; I think it's exploitative.

What I like is a good drama series, like Inspector Morse. And American cop shows; I think that's my favourite genre.”