Exclusive Interview: Writer Nick Triplow on The Unmade Fourth Doctor/Robin Hood Story

The Doctor finally met Robin Hood in 2014’s Robot of Sherwood but a meeting almost happened much earlier in the life of the series. The original plan for Season 16 would have seen Tom Baker’s Doctor encounter the legendary outlaw in a story titled The Doppelgangers in the quest for the Key to Time.

In a twist to the established legend, Robin Hood would have been depicted as a cold-hearted villain rather than a noble hero. Why this story didn’t make it to the screen forms part of a compelling new biography of a largely forgotten but hugely influential British writer.

The Doppelgangers, or The Shield of Zarak as the story was re-titled, was the brainchild of Ted Lewis, writer of the source novel made into the classic British crime film, Get Carter starring Michael Caine in 1971. His work is often overlooked today but Lewis was a massive influence on many modern crime writers, having pioneered a style of British noir writing which hadn’t previously existed.

The story of how this chronicler of the darker side of human nature came to have an unlikely involvement with late 1970s Doctor Who is an intriguing and under-explored part of the programme’s long history.

Nick Triplow is the author of Getting Carter, a biography of Ted Lewis which tells the story of a complex man who rose from humble beginnings in post-war north Lincolnshire to achieve great success at a young age, before falling back into obscurity.

Triplow’s research throws new light on one of the programme’s most fascinating eras – and challenges a persistent myth along the way. More importantly, it’s also an enthralling study of a creative but flawed writer which will appeal to anyone interested in crime fiction or in one of the all-time classic British films.

Jonathan Appleton recently spoke to Nick Triplow, who also shared some rare documents relating to Lewis’s story which are shown below.

Nick Triplow

DWC: Maybe you could start, Nick, by giving us an overview. Who was Ted Lewis, for anyone that doesn’t know the name?

Nick: He’s probably best known as the writer of the novel Jack’s Return Home, which pretty much by the time it hit bookshelves had been filmed as Get Carter in 1971. Ted was born and brought up here in Barton and went across to Hull and went to art school; we’re talking about 1957, he went to art school and graduated in ’61 and found his way to London.

And if you look at his life in terms of riding the zeitgeist moments, he hit quite a few. He was a jazz musician in the late ’50s, working in animation in the mid-’60s on things like The Lone Ranger, he was clean-up supervisor on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine in Soho in the late ’60s, at which point he was writing this novel about a hitman returning to his home town of Scunthorpe to avenge the death of his brother, which became Get Carter.

And I’ve been to quite a few screenings with the book recently and you realise how that film still resonates with people in a way that not many others do from that era… I think the aesthetic of that film and the way that Ted’s story is very much at the heart of it still gives it a power that makes it one of those classic British films.

Then into the ’70s, Ted was writing for Z Cars for the BBC – three episodes in the last three series of Z Cars in ’76, ’77, and ’78, and then was invited to write a four-show segment of Doctor Who which would have been in the sixteenth season, so obviously with Tom Baker as the Doctor, and that came about through his friendship and professional association with Graham Williams who had been his script editor on Z Cars.

DWC: So Ted Lewis was obviously a very creative, talented person in lots of different ways…

Nick: Yeah, he was a piano player in a jazz band in Hull in the late ’50s and when he went to London he was playing in a band with Helen Shapiro’s brother. That was tough, I couldn’t really find out much about that! I did a lot of digging around but there’s not much about that. And then as an artist as an animator.

I think, more than anything, film was his passion, cinema was his passion. And when he was a kid living here in Barton there were two cinemas and they would change programme during the week so you’d get a short, a newsreel, and a main feature, and in midweek they’d switch. If he could, he’d get in and see everything, he’d see all of those in each of the cinemas. So he was steeped in that whole idea of visual storytelling.

DWC: And so as a writer of these very tough novels he wasn’t the most obvious choice for a series like Doctor Who

Nick: No, Ted is a noir novelist. If there’s one thing that you’d say that’s important about his work I’d say that he was the first genuine British noir novelist who took the best of American hard-boiled fiction and the best of British social realism and fused that into something new, something different. How at that point in the history of Doctor Who he came to be invited to write in the Graham Williams/ Tony Read era I don’t know – perhaps wrong guy, wrong place, wrong time.

DWC: But it was a direct connection that he’d had with Graham Williams?

Nick: It was, and when you speak to Tony Read about it, he says they had a common bond, that they both used to like a drink or six so I think obviously they were drinking buddies…

Ted Lewis pictured in 1975.

Graham Williams had been interested in a GK Chesterton novel called The Club of Queer Trades which is about this bohemian society in Victorian London where these gentlemen have invented their own trade through which they make their living.

And he was looking at updating The Club of Queer Trades as a BBC series and had got permission to do that and commission some scripts, and one of the scripts he commissioned was going to be called The Zodiac Factor because there were going to be twelve different shows or 50 minute films and one of them was going to be Lewis’s novel Plender, which is about this shady blackmailer who had created a niche for himself. It’s set in Hull; it’s a very dark, seedy novel – it’s the novel that followed Get Carter or Jack’s Return Home.

So he had been working with Graham Williams on that script as well so there were the three Z Cars episodes, the first two of which Williams had script edited, then there was The Zodiac Factor, so they had obviously been having conversations and talking to each other. And I suspect what had happened was over a few beers Williams said ‘I’ve got the Doctor Who gig, would you be interested in putting something together?’

Which is where they came up, he and Graham Williams and Tony Read, with this idea of The Doppelgangers in the Key to Time season. And looking back, nobody had done that before, had they? A whole 26 show arc. But I think the reason behind that was they had all grown up at the Saturday morning pictures, Ted included, so they had all seen things like Flash Gordon, Fu Manchu, and all those kind of things which would stretch over quite a long time and the idea was to replicate that for their audience. There was a rationale behind it that was sound.

DWC: And how much is known about what the story was about and what the content was?

Nick: Each of the segments was about finding a piece that would come together to make the Key to Time. With this story, the idea was to turn the Robin Hood myth on its head and the Doctor and Romana would be searching for this part of the Key to Time. And I think this was part of the reason why it didn’t quite work. I can give you some dates actually… so that was 1977 when Williams took over and they commissioned those four episodes in January/February of ’78.

BBC letter commissioning the storyline for The Doppelgangers by Ted Lewis

So the idea was that – and I’m going to quote Tony Read here if that’s alright – Tony Read told me:

“Graham thought Ted might be a good bet for such an approach but it was more tricky than it sounds because the general ethos of the series, like most drama, always favours the rebel with the authorities as the bad guys. We worked out a basic storyline with Ted and he went off to develop it.”

And I’ve shown you that bit of documentation from the BBC archive which shows that. So the series was originally called The Doppelgangers and it was re-titled The Shield of Zarak, and the main problem with it was that Robin Hood became the central character and you wanted somebody who could be kind of an equal hero, or not quite equal but certainly somebody who could go toe to toe with him [the Doctor].

I think the general consensus was, and what Anthony Read said is that he was just too dark. There was too much realism, and Ted’s gift for looking at the bleaker side of human nature, the darker of human nature meant it simply wasn’t working. How much of that was his fault… At the end, Tony Read said when they decommissioned it and said it wasn’t working and they canned it, he admits that they had to apologise to Ted for gifting him a bum steer really. Because they had agreed the storyline together, this wasn’t Ted coming back and saying ‘Look, I’ve done this.’ They had agreed that these were the storylines, fine, let’s go with those and it was really in the execution of those…

I suppose, if you look at the pressures on them, they are post-Mary Whitehouse’s intervention, so they are trying to lighten things up and make it more humorous. You’ve got Tom Baker as quite an entrenched Doctor; you can’t mess with his character because, by that point, it’s a case of “this is who he is, this is what he does”. You’ve also got this crazy-looking 26 part arc; you create a narrative arc and you can’t break out of it.

So you’ve already got constraints within a series format, you’ve added a whole new level of constraint with the arc, and you’re now asking a noir writer to come in and produce something that’s going to fit into that seamlessly… It’s a big ask, isn’t it?

BBC commissioning document for Ted Lewis’s script for episode 2. Note that by now the story title had changed.

DWC: And how far down the road did he get into the writing?

Nick: He produced the scripts; he produced three of the four and was paid for three of the four. The original deadline was for April ’78 and I know that Ted was still working on them over the summer, which isn’t unusual to be honest. It’s like Douglas Adams was working on that series and his famous quote about deadlines is, “I like deadlines; I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by!” That’s Ted to a tee as well.

DWC: And so, for the reasons you’ve outlined, the production team decide they are not going to go with it. How did Ted Lewis take this?

Nick: He was disappointed by that. How much it would have helped his career at that time, which wasn’t going well particularly in terms of book sales, I’m not sure. Tony Read’s memory of it is that they parted on fairly good terms and Ted went to the pub, got drunk, and was, again in quotes, “slagging off that b*stard Tony Read” which… I mean, he was obviously p*ssed off about it, as you would be.

I don’t know how it sprung up, I suspect it might have come from Ted himself, but there’s this myth that he was drunk and got thrown out of the BBC – there’s no grounds for that at all, none whatsoever. Or that he was too drunk to produce the goods, which is something else that I’ve heard from other people; it’s absolute rubbish – he produced.

In fact, that’s the one thing; no matter how unwell he got – and he got extremely unwell with alcohol issues – he was always writing. I don’t know how sometimes with the other things that were going on in his life but he always managed to write, and, in the end, he produced the scripts.

And having seen some of his other scripts, the Z Cars ones, when he worked with a good producer and a good script editor, which Graham Williams certainly was – they’re good, particularly the first Z Cars script, Prisoner. It’s almost like one of those one-to-one episodes that EastEnders used to do really well, between one of the Z Cars characters, PC Quilley, and this escaped convict played by Keith Barron, and it’s them in the back of an off-licence warehouse. And it’s great drama, really well-crafted drama. Ted’s got the ability to do it – as I say, wrong guy, wrong place, wrong time.

Internal BBC memo from Graham Williams accompanying the formal Rejection Notification for Ted Lewis’s story

DWC: And it’s certainly a shame because that central idea of Doctor Who meets Robin Hood and he turns out to be a baddie is a strong idea…

Nick: And they revisited it in 2014, and I remember sitting watching that in Peter Capaldi’s first series, I think either the second or the third episode, and I remember sitting there watching it and thinking ‘Oh my God!’ Someone had finally – it was Mark Gatiss I think – had gone back to it and it came round again to this idea of the Doctor with Robin Hood [for Robot of Sherwood].

DWC: So it’s a perfectly strong theme as you say but wrong time…

Nick: Yes, obviously it shows that was the wrong time.

DWC: You mentioned that there were three episodes written; do we know where those scripts are?

Nick: No, and I would love to know where they are! They are not in the BBC document archive, or at least I couldn’t find them. The guys there know stuff inside out; they couldn’t find them. The other places where I have managed to unearth scripts, with old friends where he left stuff or whatever, they haven’t got them or at least they haven’t emerged.

DWC: So you tried everywhere you could really?

Nick: Yeah. There might be, I don’t know if there are Doctor Who aficionados who collect these things, I’m sure there are… but I’d like to read them.

DWC: They’d be fascinating to read after all this time. And it’s a shame, after you’ve managed to turn up these other documents about the commission itself, other things which you’ve managed to trace.

Nick: Yeah, and that’s interesting, I think, the process of storylining and then the actual scripts themselves being put together. I wonder how losing those four 25 minute episodes in the fourth part of a 6-part season, how that would have affected things. He’d done major rewrites, Lewis did rewrite the stuff over that summer and Read’s recollection is they parted on friendly terms. No producer likes letting a writer down…

DWC: And obviously they had paid him so it’s all coming out of the budget.

Nick: Yeah. I think it’s not always… In those situations, it’s not always the writer’s fault if something fails. Sometimes, it’s a failure in concept as much as anything and I don’t know that series well enough to know how it panned out over those 26 episodes, but I do know they didn’t do it again.

DWC: No, that’s true, certainly not for quite a long time. So as the book goes on to say, after all this, Ted Lewis was still a relatively young man at the time but sadly didn’t actually live that much longer.

Nick: He didn’t, no, and he died in 1982 at the age of 42. He’d had problems with alcohol for quite a long time. It’s difficult to say when somebody’s heavy social drinking becomes alcoholism, particularly around that time when the media industry’s drinking was completely commonplace.

You speak to his mates who all worked on Yellow Submarine in the ’60s and they’ll talk about having three pints at lunchtime, going back and working on precise animation! You’re just thinking “How on earth do you do that?” but they did. And that’s where a lot of the business was done as well.

DWC: So tell us about how you came to write the biography.

Nick: I moved up here (to Barton) in 2001 from London and I was working on a social history book about the old Ropewalk in Barton in 2007 and talking to a lot of people about old Bartonians and a lot of them said, “you want to look into that Ted Lewis”. Now I knew him as the writer of Get Carter, which was a book I’d read and, as a crime fiction fan and as a crime fiction novelist, that was a standout novel if you like.

And I hadn’t put two and two together at that point but once I had and realised the guy came from here and I started walking the Humber bank and matching scenes from the novel to locations in Scunthorpe, in Barton, along the Humber bank, he suddenly started to come to life. Then beginning to speak to other people, speaking to some of Ted’s friends, I just thought “there’s a story here”. Why has this guy virtually disappeared from history? Why is he not revered in the same way that the Americans revere Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, those originators of a kind of writing.

DWC: Did you come to any conclusion on why he wasn’t remembered that well?

Nick: Why he faded, I guess, he didn’t stay in London. He did some really interesting work, he wrote some great novels. His last novel, GBH, is a fantastic example of a dark psychological noir and it’s very much an east coast noir but didn’t sell particularly well. And I think a lot of it is around timing. Crime fiction at that time, it wasn’t a big seller compared to now. That kind of stuff, it didn’t shift in the numbers that it does today.

DWC: And tell us about how you went about researching the book, because it’s someone who’s been dead for a fair while now, and obviously lived before the age of the internet and lived in some ways quite a chaotic life.

Nick: It was a bit like trying to do a 10,000 piece jigsaw without having the picture to go from. You find pieces and you look for fragments, tiny fragments that you can piece together and when you get enough fragments together suddenly you get a picture, you get some idea of “Right, I can pursue that, so I can talk to these people”.  There were three or four key interviews and key interviewees who I went back to a few times.

I did a lot of research which was oral history based so it was talking to people who knew him and then balancing those things out, because you can’t always rely on people’s memories. So you’d then try and verify things in as many ways as you can, make sure you’re not relying on somebody’s recollection and running down a blind alley with them.

And it’s like with that idea that Ted had been drunk and thrown out of the BBC; that’s written in a few places, stuff people had written about him online. Where it came from, I don’t honestly know, but it gets repeated and so part of what I was doing when I spoke to somebody like Tony Read was a case of “Well, is that what happened?” And he was like “Well no, that’s not my recollection at all; this is what happened. We parted on quite friendly terms, he might have been slagging me off in the pub later,” but in terms of that process I suppose it’s detective work in a way.

Then a lot of contextual reading; I’d studied British literature from the ’50s to the ’70s anyway a few years ago, and then a lot of textual analysis, so he was a very autobiographical novelist so a lot of his stuff you go back to it and once you know a little bit about his biography you start realising which bits he’s pulling from his own life and which bits are slightly skewed versions of events that happened to him. And so in the end it’s really a long, slow, drawn out process piecing these things together until you can create a unified whole and there he is, in the middle of this jigsaw puzzle, standing there complete.

DWC: And if you had to sum up Ted Lewis’s legacy, or what he represents in the canon of British crime fiction, how would you encapsulate that?

Nick: He represents the first truly British noir author. The fusion of hard-boiled American fiction and British social realist fiction in a way that you can’t see the join happens with Ted Lewis in Get Carter or Jack’s Return Home, in Plender, certainly in GBH, his mid-1970s novel The Rabbit which is about him growing up in and around Barton and working on the quarries in summer holidays; it’s almost like a rural noir. The kind of thing that Ben Myers is writing now.

And if his legacy is anything, it’s that he created that way of writing. It wasn’t there before and others have acknowledged that, Derek Raymond acknowledged that, and gradually that’s beginning to become more recognised. And there’s a lot more people who know about him now than this time last year. It’s caught people’s attention because they didn’t know; people love an untold story.

Our thanks to Nick Triplow for being so generous with his time and for sharing the rare production documents.

Getting Carter is available from booksellers now. It can be bought direct from publisher No Exit Press for a discounted price of £12.99 (hardback). More of Nick Triplow’s books can be found on Amazon.