Seeking out the socialist Who behind the Doctor
Thursday 15th January 2015
BERNADETTE HYLAND explores a new publication about the life of Malcolm Hulke, a TV, radio and film writer with a political conviction
FIVE Leaves press has published a study of the work of Malcolm Hulke, written by socialist historian Michael Herbert.
Hulke was a successful writer for radio, television and the cinema from the 1950s to the late 1970s. He wrote for Armchair Theatre, the Avengers and Doctor Who, for which he is best remembered.
He was also, for a time, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain — though Herbert has yet to discover when, or for how long.
Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction TV programme in the world. It was created in 1963 by the BBC’s head of drama Sydney Newman as a science fiction series that would teach children about history and science.
Herbert was eight years old when he watched the first episode, An Unearthly Child. Like many other children of that era, he became hooked on the programme’s mix of fantastic adventures and threatening monsters.
“It was like nothing else on TV at the time,” he explains, “It was very imaginative, often dramatic and, as someone who loved books by Jules Verne and H G Wells and was watching the space race on TV, it was the ideal programme for me.”
Herbert, who is a Trustee of the Working Class Movement Library, became interested in Hulke after he found a pamphlet written by him, called Here is Drama.
The pamphlet marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the socialist Unity Theatre company, where Hulke was the production manager.
Hulke’s first serials for Doctor Who were The Faceless Ones, broadcast in 1967, and The War Games, broadcast in 1969.
He then contributed a further six serials between 1970 and 1974. This was a time when Jon Pertwee played the Doctor and the show, now in colour, reached new heights of popularity. It often had a subtle political dimension.
“This was period when race, the destruction of the environment, industrial militancy, the cold war and the liberation of women were hot political issues,” reflects Herbert.
“It’s not surprising that a writer such as Hulke, with a political background, incorporated these themes into his work through the medium of science fiction.”
Doctor Who’s chief script editor at the time, Terrance Dicks, said : “What we never did was commission a Doctor Who with a political message. But nonetheless, if you look at it there is a streak of anti-authoritarianism in all Mac’s work. He doesn’t trust the Establishment.”
Hulke himself said in a rare interview: “It’s a very political show. Remember what politics refers to. It refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right … so all Doctor Whos are political. Even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people.”
He died on July 6 1979, and Dicks recalled that, as a convinced atheist, he had left orders that there was to be no priest, no hymns or other ceremony at his funeral.
Consequently his friends sat by the coffin not knowing what to do. “Finally Eric Paice stood up, slapped the coffin and said: ‘Well cheerio, Mac’ and wandered out. We all followed him,” recollected Dicks.
Herbert situates Hulke’s writing within a classic era of Doctor Who and expresses the hope that fans of the revamped show broadcast since 2005 will be persuaded to look back to its 1970s incarnation.
“Clearly the pace of the show is much slower and the special effects were nothing like today, but many of the serials have strong and imaginative stories which stand the test of time” he says.
Pushed to name his favourite serial by Hulke, Herbert opts for The War Games: “The Doctor and his companions land in the midst of what they think is the first world war, but then discover that other wars from Earth’s history are taking place in near-by zones.
“It’s all been set up by an alien race who want to create an unbeatable army. Malcolm shows war as violent and pointless, controlled by leaders who couldn’t care less about the soldiers. It’s quite bleak and an overlooked classic.”
Herbert is keen to hear from anyone who knew Hulke and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
He will teaching an 11-week evening class on Doctor Who, starting on Tuesday 14 April, at Aquinas College in Stockport. Further information about the course can be obtained by ringing the college on (0161) 419-9163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television costs £4 and can be ordered directly from Five Leaves.
Bernadette Hyland blogs at lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com.