Pace and Energy: Graeme Harper and Doctor Who

Doctor Who director emeritus, the legendary Graeme Harper, gave a talk recently about his time behind the camera and, in particular, directing the Time Lord.

To fans, Graeme needs little introduction. He’s the only person to have directed stories in both the classic and the new era of the series. He began his involvement with Who with an apprenticeship to another of the great Doctor Who directors, Douglas Camfield, who gifted us (among others) The Daleks Master Plan, The Web of Fear, The Invasion, and Terror of the Zygons.

Graeme Harper in 1984
Is this death? Graeme on set for Colin Baker’s first line

When it finally came his turn to direct, Graeme turned in as his debut a story still regarded by many as one of Who’s greatest ever instalments, the formidable The Caves of Androzani (penned by another giant of the series, Robert Holmes) that, with Peter Davison stormed at with shot and shell, heralded the thunderous death of the Fifth Doctor. Harper recalls:

“The bullet effects were quite dangerous; Peter knew where to run, the explosions were 6 inches away from his feet. What we didn’t think of was the sand blowing up into his face. It was my first production and I blinded the Doctor!”

A year later, Graeme also directed the impressively dark and perverse Revelation of the Daleks with Colin Baker. He even made a small cameo in the show himself: as one of the faces that appears during the telepathic battle at the climax to The Brain of Morbius in 1976.

Nicola Bryant and Peter Davison - Androzani
Behind the scenes: Peter Davison regrets telling Nicola Bryant that he’s being replaced with Colin Baker

In the new series, Graeme helmed blockbusting stories such as Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, Utopia, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, and The Waters of Mars. Utopia saw the return of the Master, played by Derek Jacobi (then regenerating into Sam Tyler from Life on Mars); Jacobi’s eyes turned black when he declared he was the evil Time Lord, and Harper says:

“To this day, I don’t know how he did that!”

And, on top of all of this, Graeme has a deserved reputation as being a genuinely warm and lovely man: a true ambassador for the series.

In his talk, Graeme also spoke about his work outside of Doctor Who, notably directing the late Rik Mayall in the outrageous and highly successful ITV political satire, The New Statesman (1987-92). Even here, Graeme could not wholly escape the blue box, as he was working with Michael Troughton, son of Patrick and brother of David, who played Alan’s B’Stard’s hapless lackey, Sir Piers Fletcher-Dervish and who himself would appear in the new series in Last Christmas in 2014 (and for a bonus point, trivia fans, another New Statesman director was Geoffrey Sax, who directed the 1996 TV movie with Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann).

Rik Mayall and Michael Troughton
Rik Mayall and Michael Troughton in typically reflective mood

Graeme has another, more obscure connection with outer space: in the 1960s, he worked briefly as a driving instructor and one of his pupils was personal secretary to the legendary film director, Stanley Kubrick. As a result, Graeme was able to visit the studios at MGM where Kubrick was making 2001: A Space Odyssey and briefly meet the great auteur, himself.

To read more about Graeme’s talk, you can visit Purple Revolver here.