Barry Letts

Barry Letts
Born Barry Leopold Letts
(1925-03-26)26 March 1925
Leicester, Leicestershire, England, UK
Died 9 October 2009(2009-10-09) (aged 84)
England, UK
Occupation Actor, director, producer
Years active 1925–2009
Spouse(s) Muriel
(1951–2009) (her death)
Children Dominic

Barry Leopold Letts (26 March 1925 – 9 October 2009)[1] was a British actor, television director, writer and producer.

Born in Leicester, he worked as an actor in theatre, films and television before retiring in his early forties and becoming a television director. He then became producer of the BBC science fiction series Doctor Who for five years. He later produced the BBC's Sunday Classic drama serials in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was associated with Doctor Who for many years, with active involvement in the television programme from 1967 to 1981 (as a director, producer and writer) and with later contributions to its spin-offs in other media. His sons Dominic and Crispin Letts are both actors.

The Guardian described Letts on his death as "a pioneer of British television" who "served the medium for more than half a century" and "secured his place in TV history" with Doctor Who.[1]

Early career

Letts was an assistant stage manager at the Theatre Royal in his teens and took up the job full-time after leaving school. His initial work was as a repertory actor, following his service as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.[1] He later played one of the leading characters in the Terence Fisher directed film, To the Public Danger, a heartfelt plea against dangerous driving. He also appeared in the highly regarded Ealing Studios productions, Scott of the Antarctic and The Cruel Sea, in supporting roles.

From 1950 he appeared in various television productions including The Avengers and a live drama, Gunpowder Guy in which future Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton played Guy Fawkes and Letts a fellow conspirator.[1] He also appeared as Colonel Herncastle in the 1959 television adaptation of Wilkie Collins's novel The Moonstone. He acted in The Last Man Out.

Much of this television work was for the BBC and Letts abandoned acting after completing their director's course in 1967. His early directorial work included episodes of the long-running police drama Z-Cars and a soap opera, The Newcomers.

Doctor Who

Letts' first involvement with Doctor Who was in 1967 when he directed the Patrick Troughton serial The Enemy of the World. This was a complex serial to direct as Troughton played both the Doctor and the Mexican dictator "Salamander" in the same story and sometimes in the same scenes – a rare and demanding directorial requirement for the 1960s.

He became the show's producer in 1969 in succession to Derrick Sherwin. Jon Pertwee had just been cast as the Doctor. Letts' first story as producer was Pertwee's second, Doctor Who and the Silurians, and he remained the producer for the rest of the Pertwee serials, becoming the father figure in the 'family' atmosphere that had developed on the show at that time. It was an exciting era for Doctor Who, with episodes broadcast in colour for the first time and an improved budget which enabled more location filming and action sequences than had previously been seen. Letts also embraced the technological innovations which came with moving the series into colour, most notably his enthusiasm for Colour Separation Overlay.[2] He also oversaw the celebrations of the programme's tenth anniversary in 1973, uniting the first three Doctors in the first multiple Doctor story, The Three Doctors.

When he was offered the chance to become producer on the series, Letts asked that he be allowed to also direct some of the stories. The BBC agreed to this and Letts directed several Doctor Who stories during his period as producer: Terror of the Autons, Carnival of Monsters, Planet of the Spiders and the remaining studio scenes of Inferno after Douglas Camfield had been taken ill. He returned in 1975 to direct The Android Invasion during the era of Philip Hinchcliffe as programme producer.

Barry Letts formed a particular partnership with two other contributors to the programme: Terrance Dicks, who was the script editor on the programme at that time; and Robert Sloman, with whom he contributed four stories to the Pertwee era: The Dæmons (credited as Guy Leopold); The Time Monster; The Green Death; and Planet of the Spiders, which was Pertwee's swansong. Indeed, he provided an official obituary to Sloman in December 2005. Letts was a Buddhist and also held liberal political views. This influenced his contribution to Doctor Who, which included commissioning stories which reflected issues including ecology, colonialism and apartheid.[1]

He was still producer when Tom Baker was cast as the Fourth Doctor. Letts cast him after the actor was recommended to him by Bill Slater, an experienced director and Head of Serials at the BBC. After one story with Baker, Robot he left the position of producer in 1974, having been the longest serving producer on the programme to that time.

In the 1980–81 series, he returned to be executive producer alongside John Nathan-Turner as the producer. This was for one season between The Leisure Hive and Tom Baker's final story Logopolis. Letts' return to the programme was because Nathan-Turner had not previously served as a producer and a restructure of the BBC Drama Department meant that Head of Series & Serials Graeme MacDonald was unable to offer the support previous producers had received. As it happened, 'JNT' (as he was known) stayed for nine years, overtaking Letts as the longest serving producer on Doctor Who. When the programme returned in 2005, Letts was involved in the hectic round of interviews to promote the show, most unusually appearing for a lengthy discussion piece on The Daily Politics with Andrew Neill on BBC2.

Barry Letts also wrote two scripts for two radio plays broadcast in the 1990s: The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space. He wrote the novelisations of the TV story The Dæmons (Target Books, 1974) and the radio plays The Paradise of Death (Target, 1994) and The Ghosts of N-Space (Virgin Books, 1995, published as part of the Virgin Missing Adventures line). He also wrote two original Doctor Who novels published by BBC Books: Deadly Reunion (co-written with Terrance Dicks, 2003) and Island of Death (2005).

He continued to record commentaries and interviews for DVD releases of his Doctor Who episodes up until his death in 2009. In June 2008 he recorded a long in-vision interview covering his entire career, and his Doctor Who years in particular, excerpts of which continued to be widely used on future DVD releases, most notably on an obituary documentary "Remembering Barry Letts" which was included on the BBC DVD release of The Daemons, a serial Letts co-wrote.

Letts' work on the show is inextricably linked with the character of the Third Doctor, as played by Jon Pertwee. With the exceptions of The Enemy of the World, Robot, The Android Invasion and his one season as executive producer in 1980–81, every Doctor Who story regardless of media in which Letts has been involved – whether as producer, director or writer – has involved this version of the character.

Later work

His other work included producing and co-creating Moonbase 3 with Terrance Dicks.[3]

After leaving Doctor Who, he went back to a mixture of directing and producing at the BBC. He directed numerous series and serials, before settling into a role as producer of the BBC "Sunday Classic" serials. He oversaw more than 25 serials in this capacity over an 8-year period,[3] including Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, The Hound of the Baskervilles (starring Tom Baker), The Invisible Man, Pinocchio, Gulliver in Lilliput, Alice in Wonderland, Lorna Doone, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Children of the New Forest, several other Dickens novels and Beau Geste. He also produced Sense and Sensibility for the BBC, and his production of Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke was nominated for a BAFTA award.

Later he directed David Copperfield for the BBC and was a director on the soap opera EastEnders from 1990 to 1992.

He had a very small cameo in the film Exodus, broadcast on UK Channel 4.

His autobiography, Who and Me, was published in November 2009,[4] then released as a talking book on CD, read by Letts himself, and later broadcast on BBC Radio 7.

Letts also taught directing for the BBC at Elstree Studios.


Letts suffered from cancer for many years before his death.[1] His wife, Muriel, had died earlier in the year. Letts is survived by his three children: Dominic, Crispin and Joanna.[3]

Following Letts’ death, Tom Baker was interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Last Word to pay tribute. He described Letts as "the big link in changing my entire life". Doctor Who executive producer Russell T. Davies also wrote a personal tribute to him in issue No. 415 of Doctor Who Magazine.

The November 2009 Doctor Who episode "The Waters of Mars" was dedicated to his memory. Issue No. 417 of Doctor Who Magazine included a 12-page tribute to Letts and featured contributions from former colleagues including Frazer Hines, Mary Peach, Terrance Dicks, Nicholas Courtney, Graeme Harper, Katy Manning, Christopher Barry, Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker.

Selected filmography


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Gaughan, Gavin (12 October 2009). "Barry Letts obituary". London: The Guardian. Archived from the original on 15 October 2009. Retrieved 13 October 2009.
  2. Brian J. Robb (2013). Timeless Adventures: How Doctor Who Conquered TV. Kamera. ISBN 978-1843441564.
  3. 1 2 3 "Barry Letts". The Daily Telegraph. 3 November 2009. Retrieved 22 August 2008.
  4. "The Doctor Who News Page: Barry Letts: Who and Me". 9 October 2009. Retrieved 13 October 2009.

External links

Preceded by
Derrick Sherwin
Doctor Who Producer
Succeeded by
Philip Hinchcliffe
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