Barry Newbery's Big Doctor Who Day Out

Back through the Time Vortex in 2007, I had the pleasure of writing a Doctor Who Magazine feature which covered designer Barry Newbery’s visit to Cardiff’s Upper Boat Studios, where Doctor Who was then being made.  Between 1963 and 1984, Barry worked on more episodes of classic Doctor Who than any other designer, starting with the very first story, An Unearthly Child.  On the day of our studio tour, the man was great fun and the experience was enhanced by the ever-galvanising presence of one Russell T Davies.

This week, I was very sorry to learn, courtesy of a DWM tribute feature, that Barry passed away in February 2015 at the age of 88.  Here, to commemorate his 2007 reconnection with the show to which he made such a big contribution, is that DWM feature of mine, with the original side panel incorporated into the main text.  To help put you in the picture chronologically, Series Three of New Who was airing at the time of our visit, so the ending with the Titanic smashing through the TARDIS wall was top-secret (but wasn’t by the time this feature hit the magazine.)  I’m pretty sure a couple of the pictures here, which I took myself, have never been seen before…

Barry Newbery and Russell T Davies at Upper Boat, 2007
“GORGEOUS, ISN'T IT?” Russell T Davies hoots rhetorically.  He swats aside the yellow police-style tape which stretches across the TARDIS’ entrance and strides aboard. “Every time I walk on this set, I just love it.”

No, Russell hasn’t randomly decided to show DWM the TARDIS set for the 23rd time: he has even more special guests in tow. Chief among them is one Barry Newbery. This legendary 80-year-old served on 74 episodes of Doctor Who right from its 1963 birth, making sporadic contributions across each of the first five Doctor’s tenures, ending with 1984’s two-parter The Awakening. Among the stories on his remarkable resumé are The Aztecs (1964), The Ark (1966), The Gunfighters (1966), Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) and The Brain of Morbius (1976).

So when Barry’s daughter Jo wrote to BBC Wales, saying that this design-god thinks the new show is “bloody marvellous” and would love to see the new series’ production base, Russell and co were only too happy to extend the invitation. Jo’s come along to Cardiff’s Upper Boat Studios for the ride, as has Barry’s wife Zena.

It’s March 15 2007, and the TARDIS is looking… untidy. The floor’s littered with dust and rubble. Blame the Titanic (oh, do you realise how nice it is to finally be able to write about that Top Secret Ending? Do you?)

“Terrible things have happened at the end of this series’ final episode,” Russell explains to Barry, “which no-one’s allowed to breathe a word about! Right now, it looks like it’s been sitting here since 1963. Waiting for you, Barry. Waiting for you!”

“Are these hoses for steam?” asks the designer, pointing at some TARDIS tubing.
“Some of them are,” says Russell. “Others have lights inside.”

Barry smiles. “I remember an actor dressed as a monk accidentally getting steam up his robes from a hose like that! I went rushing down, trying to seal up this hose which had broken off.”

“That must’ve been The Time Meddler,” grins Russell, loving it.

Barry stabs the air with a forefinger. “That’s the one!”

FORTY-FOUR YEARS after Doctor Who launched into production, some aspects of the show’s creation remain constant. Designers are still key: without them deciding how the writer’s words will actually look onscreen, a major part of the production process is missing. Yet as Barry gazes around the cavernous TARDIS set – a couple of metres higher since its 2006 move from Newport, fellow fact-gannets - he can see how things have changed.

“Well, we could never have done something like this,” he admits. “Thing is, this TARDIS *stays* here. All our sets had to be broken down and
stored. It meant that we had half a day to assemble everything. Everything was lightweight, because it had to be moved about with ropes and pulleys. It took four men to move the central column, which did slow things down.”

“Quite a lot of sets are fixed these days, like Coronation Street,” says Russell. “The Rovers always stays in place.”

“Sometimes we used the TARDIS interior twice,” reveals Barry. “We’d push the console away and put another set inside.”

He’s quick to point out that he didn’t actually design the original TARDIS control room. That honour fell to Peter Brachacki (“We called him Bracket because it was easier to say”), who would also toil on Blake’s 7. After Peter worked on Doctor Who’s pilot episode, Barry took over as designer, adopting an ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude. “When I remade the TARDIS control room for An Unearthly Child, it was a case of man-hours and keeping costs down, so it didn’t have the degree of work that Pete’s had. Bits of it got dumped because they were too heavy – very exotic but too heavy. So then we had three walls, including the one with the door. And we shot in Lime Grove’s Studio D - one of the smallest studios in the building!”

Russell broaches the subject of another Doctor Who gem, albeit one sadly missing from the BBC’s archives. “You did Marco Polo, didn’t you? So sad that it was lost. It looks gorgeous in the telesnaps.”

“Yes,” says Barry, “it would have been wonderful if they’d still got Marco Polo because I was really pleased with that. I remember having this fish tank with water running down into another big tank with goldfish in it and lovely leaves. But it wasn’t seen on camera!”

“Directors, eh?” tuts Russell. “Oh well. They’ll find Marco Polo one day, in an old footlocker. It would be glorious to see it now. So do you prefer the historical ones to the futuristic?”

“Oh yes. I was always able to get my head around technical things, but all that stuff is boring, isn’t it? I like people doing things. Living. Which they did, in the historical stories.”

The new series of Doctor Who, of course, tends to root itself in the present.

“Yes,” considers Russell, “whereas the old show almost never did the present-day.”

“The Dalek Invasion of Earth did present-day with the Daleks going over Westminister Bridge,” notes Barry. “But how did they get over the steps and things?”

“They flew, Barry! They could always fly – we just never saw it.”

Barry shakes his head. “I have no idea how they do those amazing computer graphics.”

“Me neither, really!” shrugs Russell. “I just know who does it, and what it costs. It’s like another world, isn’t it? I was watching some flying Daleks this morning, for Evolution Of The Daleks. Beautiful.”

He gestures off the TARDIS set. “Shall we take a look at the Hub?”

Torchwood's Hub (BBC publicity shot)
TORCHWOOD'S BASE of operations, a mere stroll away, is as impressive as ever, despite presently being in a state of renovation. The level of detail remains highly impressive – right down to those utterly realistic polystyrene bricks in the walls. “This is the main precinct. And that’s the team’s board room up there,” says Russell, pointing. “Newly restored, because it was destroyed by a monster.”

Upper Boat’s resident art department production manager, Jonathan Allison, arrives to greet Barry and family, noting, “We were very lucky with the Torchwood set: we had a lot of preparation. We started work on it in January 2006 and we were filming at the beginning of May. Because it would be high definition, we knew you’d be able to see every detail.”

“When we see it on screen,” adds Russell. “It’s all very wet, with water running down. I really want it to be flooded. Can we do that yet?”

Jonathan smiles and shakes his head.

“Ahhh come on,” goads Russell. “We can just use some big strong men with buckets!” He turns to Barry: “The one thing that’s a nigtmare for computer graphics is water. In Hollywood it’s easy, but for us it’s a nightmare. Every week I come in and say, ‘Can we flood this?’ and The Mill go, ‘No!’ Eventually, someone will create a bit of software which will make it cheap…”

What did Barry make of Torchwood?
”I didn’t watch it,” he says, with that wonderful bluntness which eight decades on this planet earns you. “But I’d like to see it now.”

Russell, Barry and DWM climb some steps, to an upper walkway. It’s surprisingly far from ground level.

“What did you think,” wonders Russell, “when they handed you that first Doctor Who script? Did you think, ‘They’re having a bleedin’ laugh?’”

“I was never ever critical of a script,” says Barry. “It was my job to put it onscreen and make it work in a studio. It was a problem to be solved. So I would look and it and think, ‘How can I do this?’ With that first story, bones were easy enough to get hold of, but skulls weren’t. Someone came up with the idea of vacuforming them. We set about getting art students to make heads.”

Some skulls in a cave, yesterday
“And The Cave Of Skulls was born,” smiles Russell. ”Where are those students now? ‘My skull was once on Doctor Who’, they’ll say.”

Barry joined the BBC in 1959, with a background in exhibition design. He worked in an adjacent office to up-and-coming film-maker Ridley Scott who he “didn’t talk to much, as he seemed to be a very busy man”.

“Back when you started,” says Russell, “designing must’ve been quite a rare job, nationwide. You were quite elite, weren’t you?”

“I suppose we were. We had a tremendous build-up of different talents. I worked as an assistant for seven years – that’s how everyone learnt how to be a designer. You couldn’t do a course. After I retired, I did a bit of art-school teaching for people who wanted to work in television design, but it’s difficult. They’ve got to understand how a studio works and how scenery goes together.”

“When did you retire, Barry?”

“1984. I was 57-and-a-half.”

“And did you miss it?”

”No. I was on holiday from then on!”

WE LEAVE TORCHWOOD – sadly not through the big circular door – and head outside. Passing the Blue Box café (no, really – it’s blue and everything), we enter another studio. Here, a huge set from The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords is slowly being dismantled.

“This was the Valiant!” announces Russell. “Great big aircraft carrier type thing. And over there is a flying car from the Year Five Billion. The VW of its time.”

“I shall take your word for it,” chuckles Barry.

“I could be making it up,” admits Russell. “Actually, this set’s the moonbase! But no, the Valiant is beautiful. Perhaps our finest yet. Shall we have a look at the Daleks in their little room?”

Needless to say, we do. Inside a glass-fronted store-room, we mingle with three dormant exterminators.

“Like they’re looking at you, isn’t it?” says Russell. “It’s the same design, really. We didn’t drastically change it.”

“Ray Cusick, who designed them,” notes Barry, “got £130 from management for contribution to BBC. Terry Nation became a millionaire.”

“But poor old Terry died first,” says Russell. “What would you rather have? So was The Daleks’ Masterplan a fun one to work on?”

”I did the second half,” says Barry. “There were elements in it which I quite liked: when the TARDIS landed on the volcano. And when Daleks went to Egypt. I had to make scaffolding for Egyptians to climb all over.”

“Marvellous,” beams Russell. “Now, let’s leave the masters of Skaro!”

Being a designer, was Barry gagging for the advent of colour TV?

“Well, we did design in colour,” he says, “So that both we and the actors knew what we were doing. Black-and-white actually helped me out, because I could use a green settee and a red settee and they’d look right, because they were both the same colour! I believe ITV often only used greys. That would’ve been terribly boring.”

On the way to the next store-room, Barry pulls off a remarkable coup – he momentarily forgets Russell’s name and gets away with it. Men have died for less!

This chamber’s a beauty – it’s full of masks and bits of monster. Scarecrows, Judoon, Cybermen, you name it. Barry picks up a Clockwork Droid mask from The Girl in the Fireplace. “That’s quite a smile, isn’t it,” he admires. “Malevolent. Trying to design creatures like all of these would terrify me. I never did anything like that.”

Barry with Jonathan Allison
THE TOUR COMPLETE, it’s cups of tea all 'round as Barry and co settle in Doctor Who’s art department offices. Russell bids everyone a fond farewell, then is forced to dash off for one of his myriad exec producer duties. Production designer Edward Thomas is unfortunately in the middle of moving house and is waiting for a skip, but Jonathan holds the fort admirably, leafing through some concept designs for a fascinated Barry.

“Our designs were never particularly complicated,” says the older man, “because we never had enough time. I’d have four weeks to design and draw each episode, and I’d be working on four episodes simultaneously. Then there’d have to be time for the actual filming itself. Every new thing we did was a challenge.”

“You don’t know what you’re designing from one script to the next, do you,” Jonathan enthuses. 

“Torchwood’s great, but you’re spending a lot of time in the Hub. With Doctor Who, the TARDIS is your only standing set and that’s it.”

While Barry’s Upper Boat tour obviously highlighted differences in production over the years, did he notice anything familiar?

“Nothing! Walking onto the Torchwood set was the closest I got to real scenery – the sort we had in the studio. Mind you, we never had it quite as well-finished and detailed, because we didn’t need to. It would’ve been wasted on those early cameras.”

DWM would naturally be remiss if we didn’t drag a little behind-the-scenes gossip from this great man – especially given his straight-talking candour. The finest anecdote we uncover concerns 1977’s wonderful The Invisible Enemy.

“I enjoyed that - the one where the Doctor went into his own bloodstream. [Visual effects designer] Ian Scoones handled the interior brain, with all the synapses for them to walk through. The director Derrick Goodwin wasn’t very good, though. He was making a real pig’s ear of it.”

“No-one really knew what was going on, with this Colour Separation Overlay business,” explains Jonathan. “That technology was very new and hadn’t really been used before.”

“I was with costume designer Ray Hughes, watching all this happen,” remembers Barry. “He was pouring me great big glasses of gin, because I’d finished. So I ended up going to the control room and taking over! I said to the production assistant, ‘Can you get them to move a bit to their right now?’. I did it all, because I was pissed. So that was great fun. Sadly, I gave Ray all the sketches I did for it. And I never got ‘em back!”

We start talking about the Doctors of Barry’s time. “William Hartnell was the best Doctor Who,” praises Barry. “A great actor. One of his stories I enjoyed working on was The Gunfighters, although it didn’t half get a canning! I wrote to Yale University and asked if they had any photographs of Tombstone. They sent me a pile, which someone later nicked! That street outside the bar looked so very long because the scenic artist who painted it was superb. I tried to make The Gunfighters look like what I’d always seen on film: the classic western. Because that’s what it needed. I remember the lighting man walking down the street in a stetson and spurred boots, getting into the feel of it! He’d been to America…”

Of all the stories Barry worked on, does he harbour a sneaky favourite?

The Masque Of Mandagora: splendid purple robes 
"Looking back, the one which possibly gave me the most pleasure was The Masque of Mandragora, in terms of how successful I’d been. To actually build a 15th Century palace and decorate it in the way [the Venetian painter] Carpaccio did it? Lovely. Was it in colour?”

It certainly was, sir. Splendid purple robes and all.

“There was a lake we used at Port Merrion,” he continues. “A very nice place to walk around. On the edge of the lake, I built a pedestal with a Greek frieze on top. One local fellow said to me, ‘Oh, wonderful. Can you leave it there?’”

1976’s Fourth Doctor story The Masque of Mandragora introduced the TARDIS’ second control room, as designed by Barry. It boasted wood-panelling, with a central console surrounded by brass railings. “You know, I could run the TARDIS just as easily from here as I could from the old one,” the Doctor told companion Sarah Jane Smith in the story. “Come to think of it, this *is* the old one.”

Explains Barry: “The show’s producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, said he thought we ought to have a new TARDIS. So I designed that one and it appeared for a few stories. It was very much in a gothic style. Jules Verne was the main influence there, and his story 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It wasn’t too expensive to build, as I was very careful not to waste money. I may even have used one of the walls from the old TARDIS!”

Barry shrugs when asked how he felt when the original console room reappeared seven serials later, in The Invisible Enemy. “If that’s what they want to do, that’s what they do. You can’t get upset about it. Some designers got cross with their directors, calling them little bastards!”

Barry Newbery (1927-2015)
He adds: “A while back, someone wanted to rebuild that control room: they were opening up a new resort. So I did all the drawings again. It all fell through, but if anyone else wants to rebuild it, I’ve still got these drawings!”

So, as the time comes for The Travelling Newberys to drive back for London’s Clapham Common, how’s the mainman enjoyed his Upper Boat visit?

“It’s been wonderful. I’m very glad I came. It was nice to see the inside of the TARDIS, even though it had been partly blown up. I’d seen it already so much onscreen and things always look enhanced on the tube, so it was a bit of disappointment, in that it wasn’t as brilliant and glittery as it is on the screen. But that’s the magic of TV. And the finish on the Torchwood set was superb.”

What has continued to attract Barry Newbery to Doctor Who – even decades after he laboured on it?

“I enjoyed all my Doctor Who stories,” he says without hesitation. “I consider them all something to be proud of.  So why wouldn’t you continue to enjoy it, whether you’re working on it or not?”

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