1963 – Kennedy, Dr Who, and Martin Place in Sydney

Yesterday was one for all the Whovians.

Wollongong Whovians – as dedicated fans have become known – joined those from all over the world who flocked to cinemas, hosted themed-parties and dressed up to mark 50 years since the first episode screened on the BBC on November 23, 1963.

The ABC screened the Day of the Doctor twice yesterday – once in the morning and once at night – as well as a whole day of Doctor Who programming including interviews, panel discussions, comedy and music inspired by the show.

Why not Whoovers?

I merely watched the second screening at home, after a very satisfactory day watching the First Test come to a proper conclusion. And good as the Dr Who Special was, I rather more enjoyed An Adventure in Space and Time which followed it.

An Adventure in Space & Time is about the beginning of Dr. Who with William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford and the original Daleks. Behind the scenes, Dr. Who was plagued with doubters and total disbelievers. There’s some very authentic scene setting, with the truly bitchy, “shopkeeper” side of the early, pre-Beatles 1960s British media shining through like a zit on a teenager.

The original Dr. Who producer, Verity Lambert, is promoted from production assistant to producer for Dr. Who’s first shows. She faces skepticism, total disbelief that she’s the producer, and much more. Appointed by Sydney Newman, the head of BBC Drama, she’s producing what’s considered to be a “kid’s show”.

A brief cultural note: In those days, the sheer lack of appreciation of creativity was worse, if you can believe it, than today. Star Trek had to be sold to Paramount as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, for example. Dr. Who, therefore, had to be pigeonholed as something, and as a kid’s show was stuck in a broom closet-sized studio in the depths of London with a stage which could barely take the Tardis console. Every expense was spared.

Lambert, Hartnell and Ford, with their pariah show, made it work. Lambert fought, hard, and was vindicated. It wasn’t exactly a promising beginning. Senior management didn’t get it to start with. The first show coincided with the assassination of JFK. Ratings were crawling around in the bottom. The gallows was being built around Dr. Who…. Read more

But of course it survived the Kennedy assassination and is still with us.

Where was I back then? And yes, I did see those early William Hartnell episodes on our ABC.

I was living in Sutherland, back in Vermont Street opposite the house we had lived in from 1952 to 1955. I turned 20 in 1963. My dad’s business had failed – not his fault – and I had to work, so Martin Place saw a lot of me. I noted a few years back:

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career. The next few years were to see the English Department split in two, and by decade’s end Goldberg had gone. When I returned to Sydney University for a temporary secondment as a lecturer in 1977 he was just a memory, albeit with a few acolytes still hanging on, and a cricket team named in his honour, or in honour of his mentor the Downing College Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis.

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That magnificent Art Deco building is where I worked in 1963, and where, incidentally, my Uncle Keith Christison was NSW Claims Manager. There was always something happening in Martin Place. What follows is from October 1963. I don’t specially recall it but would have seen it, probably while rushing around for lunch!

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And it was a very different Sydney.

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