Showman – The Life Of John Nathan-Turner review: a documentary for Doctor Who fans

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The life and work of former Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner is compellingly told in a new feature documentary – here’s our review.

Here’s a documentary film for Doctor Who fans, that’s not immediately one you may be aware of. It’s actually tucked away on the new series 26 Blu-ray boxset, that’s just been released. But it’s a feature of just over 80 minutes that I think is worth covering in its own right.

It’s called Showman, and charts the life of former Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, who steered the show’s ship through the late 70s and 1980s, up to and including its cancellation by the BBC in 1989. Whilst being part of an official BBC disc set, it’s a surprisingly candid film, albeit finding a balance between outright honest and being respectful. It walks that line a lot better than the very readable biography of Nathan-Turner that was released in 2013. Conversely, it sacrifices some of the extremities as it does so (occasionally hinting at one or two factors that the film chooses not to follow), should that be what you’re looking for.

It’s not what producer/director Chris Chapman was seeking, though. Instead, he charts Nathan-Turner’s life story, from his beginnings in Birmingham, through to his landing an initially fixed-term contract at the BBC, to being offered the Doctor Who job. These early stages are accompanied by freshly-shot material of Nathan-Turner’s former school and home, although there’s no ripping up of the documentary rulebook in the way it’s all presented. Not that there needs to be.

Instead, the focus is on the story, told through a variety of engaging talking heads. Not everybody: Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy are notably not on camera in new interviews, but nonetheless, Showman gathers together people from his school days, his time at the BBC, his personal life, and Who. Threaded in are extracts from Nathan-Turner’s audio memoir, that he recorded in 2000, and a mix of archive footage of the man himself too.

But it’s left to the talking heads to fill in some of the subsequent fall, once Nathan-Turner peaked – effectively in his owns words – a few years into his Who run. He describes the highlight of his time being the 20th anniversary celebrations for the show, and a celebration event at Longleat that took place. It’s an event that’s infamous in classic Doctor Who circles, although if you’re coming to the film from a place of non-fandom, there are a few bits and bobs whose significance perhaps may not carry fully across (and that’s one of them). That said, this is a film made for a very specific audience, and a little bit of foreknowledge is perhaps expected.

That’s not to say it’s impenetrable to outsiders. Quite the opposite. With a fair amount of scene-setting included, and an effort made to paint a background picture, it’s a welcoming production. Plus, whether you’re a Who fan or not, it’s hard not to be moved by the what happened next once the programme came to a close, and Nathan-Turner’s official association with it ended. I’m not going into detail here as to what happened, save for the fact that Nathan-Turner was taken from the world way too early. Chapman’s unfussy film tells it all far better than I could.

This is a diligent and respectful piece of work, that deserves more profile than one line of text on the back of a Blu-ray boxset. There’s been a clear effort to make sure this is a fair, measured telling of a man’s story, that scratches beneath the surface in doing so. That it’s found on disc seven of a seven disc limited edition Doctor Who set undersells it enormously, too, and I do hope that at some point, the BBC finds a way to give this particularly documentary – an real high bar in terms of disc supplements – a separate release. Both the film, and Nathan-Turner’s story, deserve that.

You can find the film on the Doctor Who season 26 set, of which more details are here.

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