LAMBERT, VERITY

British Producer

She began as a secretary at Granada Television in the 1950s, but by the early 1980s Verity Lambert's influence as a television producer and executive had made her not only one of Britain's leading businesswomen, but possibly the most powerful member of the nation's entertainment industry. With a resume which lists many of the most noteworthy successes from the past 30 years, Lambert has served as a symbol of the advances won by women in the media. By the early 1990s, however, Lambert's name had also become associated with one of the more spectacular disasters in the history of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Her career did not quite suggest such dramatic highs or lows when the BBC first hired Lambert in the early 1960s. She had already worked on the British ABC's Armchair Theatre, a prestigious commercial television series. And she had worked in American television with David Susskind. After 18 months, however, she returned to ABC, only to quit again because of their refusal to hire women directors. But when the BBC hired Sydney Newman away from ABC in 1963, the BBC's new head of drama in turn brought along Lambert, who, at age 27, became the corporation's youngest producer.

Lambert's BBC assignment, producing a new children's program, may still be her most internationally known achievement: for its first three seasons (1963-65), Lambert guided the development and production of Doctor Who. Although those three seasons might easily be overlooked in the twenty-five-plus history of the series, Doctor Who fans have repeatedly stressed Lambert's importance. During her tenure she both oversaw the creation of the original Doctor as a willful, often irresponsible pacifist, and presided over the phenomenal explosion of popular interest in writer Terry Nation's cyborg villains, the ever-hardy Daleks.

As Tulloch and Alvarado argue in Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1983), Lambert herself represents the convergence of discourses which helped to make Doctor Who so original and enduring. Over the course of the previous decade the BBC had sought to meet the challenge of ITV by broadening its own definition of high culture beyond the realm of classical literature and its adaptation. Coming from the upstart world of commercial television, Lambert's association with the production of original dramas, heavy in social realism, became part of the BBC's continuing efforts to maintain its audiences. Moreover, Lambert and Doctor Who were not based in the children's department, and Lambert's inexperience with (even indifference to) the established conventions of children's programming helped to lay the ground for the cross-generational audiences which made the series a ground-breaking success. Perhaps it was simply assumed that, "as a woman," Lambert was somehow automatically qualified for the job. Indeed, interviewers have often emphasized Lambert's decision not to have children of her own. Lambert has just as often refused to supply the sometimes expected displays of remorse: in the early 1980s, she cheerfully claimed "But I can't stand babies--no, I love babies as long as their parents take them away."

Lambert's career subsequent to Doctor Who has continued to display similar mixtures of social awareness and slick commercial savvy. After producing an awarding-winning series of Sommerset Maugham short stories and various other projects, Lambert left the BBC in 1970 for London Weekend Television. She returned to co-create Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), a multi-part history of the suffragette movement. The next year Lambert joined Thames Television as controller of the drama department, becoming the company's director from 1982 to 1985. During that time Lambert was responsible for a number of highly successful productions given high exposure abroad, including Rumpole of the Bailey, the American Emmy-winning Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and Quentin Crisp's landmark biography, The Naked Civil Servant.

In 1976 Lambert had also joined the Thames subsidiary Euston Films, Ltd., and from 1979-82 she served as its chief executive. At Euston Films she developed Danger UXB, as well as the gangster drama, Out. She was also responsible for the 1979 Quatermass sequel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and Reilly: Ace of Spies, as well as Minder (1979-82), the popular working class crime series whose success she is most often associated with in Britain. Series such as Out, Reilly and Minder helped to solidify her reputation as a woman who could produce tough, male-oriented programming, a reputation she has both acknowledged and decried as sexist.

Lambert's move into feature films came when she was named head of production for Thorn-EMI, replacing the man responsible for the disastrous, big budget flops Can't Stop the Music and Honky Tonk Freeway. During what she calls this "terrible, horrible time" (1982-85), Lambert did persuade the company to join with Rank Film Distribution and Channel Four in backing a new British Screen Finance Consortium, a step which helped further to blur the distinctions in Britain between film and television production.

After leaving Thorn-EMI, her production company, Cinema Verity, produced the Meryl Streep film A Cry in the Dark (1988). Lambert's most public project, however, has been an elaborate, highly budgeted soap opera, Eldorado (1992-93). Like Doctor Who, Eldorado was an attempt by the BBC to prove itself competitive in an rapidly evolving market. This time, however, Lambert was not so lucky. A disaster of fully publicized dimensions, Eldorado was only Lambert's second experience with the genre (the first was in the 1960s, The Newcomers). Critics quickly turned on Lambert's "tough" Minder reputation and blamed her for Eldorado's departures from the familiar British conventions for soap opera. The "greatest of all British television drama producers" had dared to set a soap opera in Spain, and filled it with a multilingual array of British expatriates and foreigners far removed from the milieus of either Coronation Street or the BBC's own "quality" soap, EastEnders.

Lambert defended Eldorado to the end, and has since continued to produce a range of programming, from sitcoms to the gritty thriller Comics (1993), written by Prime Suspect's Lynda La Plante.

-Robert Dickinson

 


Verity Lambert
Photo courtesy of Verity Lambert

VERITY LAMBERT. Born in London, England, 27 November 1935. Attended Roedean School; La Sorbonne, Paris. Began career in television, 1961; drama producer, BBC Television, 1963; drama producer, London Weekend Television, 1970; rejoined BBC, 1973; controller of drama department, Thames Television 1974; chief executive, Euston Films Ltd., 1979-82; director of drama, Thames Television, 1981-82; director, Thames Television, 1982-85; director of production, Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, 1982-85; independent producer for film and television from 1985; founder, Cinema Verity Ltd, 1985. MacTaggart Lecturor, Edinburgh Television Festival, 1990. governor: British Film Institute, 1981-86 (chair, production board, 1981-82); National Film and Television School, since 1984. LLD, University of Strathclyde, 1988. Recipient: Veuve-Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, 1982; Woman's Own Woman of Achievement, 1983. Address: The Mill House, Millers Way, 1A Shepherds Bush Road, London W6 7NA, England.

TELEVISION SERIES (selection)

1963-65 Dr Who
1965 The Newcomers
1966-67 Adam Adamant Lives
1968 Detective
1969 Somerset Maugham Short Stories
1971-72 Budgie
1973-74 Shoulder to Shoulder
1976-77 Rock Follies
1978-80 Rumpole of the Bailey
1978-80 Hazell
1978 Edward and Mrs Simpson
1978 Out
1979 Danger UXB
1979 Minder
1979 Quatermass
1980 Fox
1983 Reilly: Ace of Spies
1987 American Roulette
1989 May to December
1990 Coasting
1991 GBH
1991, 1992 The Boys from the Bush
1992 Sleepers
1992-93 Eldorado
1992-94 So Haunt Me
1993 Comics
1994 Class Act
1995 She's Out
1995 Class Act II

FILMS

The Sailor's Return, 1978; Charlie Muffin, 1979; The Knowledge, 1979; Not For Publication, 1984; Morons from Outer Space, 1985; Dreamchild, 1985; Restless Natives, 1985; Link, 1986; Clockwise, 1986; A Cry in the Dark, 1988.

FURTHER READING

Dunn, Elisabeth. "One Woman's Rise to EMInence." The (London) Sunday Times, 16 January 1983.

Frean, Alexander. "Back to Reality after Eldorado." (London) Times, 26 May 1993.

Haining, Peter, editor. The Doctor Who File. London: W.H.Allen, 1986.

_______________. Doctor Who: The Key to Time: A Year-by-Year Record. London: W.H. Allen, 1984.

Tulloch, John, and Manuel Alvarado. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

White, Lesley. "TV Troubleshooter Sets Her Sights on the Eldorado Gang." The (London) Sunday Times, 9 August 1992.

 

See also Doctor Who; Minder; Quatermass; Rumpole of the Bailey