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Doctor Who and the Communist : the work and politics of Malcolm Hulke

By Michael Herbert

In writing you’re always looking for conflict…’

Malcolm Hulke

‘To my mind the basic problem is that writers are by their nature back-room-minded introverts and yet, in the publicity jungle, they find themselves pitted against an army of highly extroverted actors and actresses.  I don’t blame promotion people at all for taking the easy path of boosting the performers, if the writers fail to sell themselves as potentially equally good copy.’

Malcolm Hulke

Malcolm (Mac) Hulke was a successful writer for television, radio, the cinema and the theatre from the 1950s to the 1970s. Born in 1924, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in June 1945, not, as he later wrote to a party official, because he was attracted to its Marxist philosophy, but because ’I had just met a lot of Russian POW’s in Norway, because the Soviet Army had just then rolled back the Germans’.  He appears to have remained a member until the late 1960s, although his relationship with the party hierarchy had its ups and downs.

malcolm hulke

Mac began working as a writer with Eric Paice, whom he had met at the left-wing Unity Theatre. Their first success was This Day in Fear, broadcast in July 1958, starring Patrick McGoohan.

They went on to write four  plays  for  the Sunday evening drama series Armchair Theatre  – The Criminals (1958), The Big Client (1959),  The Great Bullion Robbery (1960) and The Girl in the Market Square (1961) –  and a series of science-fiction dramas for children, Pathfinders in Space,  broadcast by ATVin 1960, commissioned by Sydney Newman.

This Day in Fear

In the 1960s Mac worked with Terrance Dicks on a number of episodes of the thriller series The Avengers. The series evolved over the decade from a black-and-white gritty crime and mystery thriller to a stylish fantasy series, filmed in colour, which combined English eccentricity with elements of ‘Swinging London’ carefully crafted to appeal to the American market.

Dicks and Herbert’s episodes included ‘The Mauritius Penny’ (1962) in which a fascist organisation plan a coup under the guise of dealing in stamps, and ‘Intercrime’ (1963), which features a criminal organisation run as a commercial business.

Dicks went on to work on Doctor Who as the script editor and commissioned Mac to write for the popular science-fiction show, which had been running since 1963. Mac wrote eight serials for Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974.

InThe War Games’ (1969) (co-written with Terrance), The Doctor and his companions Zoe and Jamie land in the middle of what appears to be the First World War. The Doctor explains, ‘We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.’

But they then discover that other wars from history, such as the American Civil War and the Mexican revolutionary war, are taking place in neighbouring zones. They are not in fact on Earth, but on a planet on which the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer the galaxy, assisted by a renegade Time Lord, the War Chief.  The Doctor succeeds in uniting soldiers from different eras into a force which attacks and takes over the aliens’ headquarters. 

In this story Mac shows war as violent and pointless, controlled by ruthless leaders who place no value on human life. He adds to this by not giving the aliens names, only titles such as ‘The Security Chief’ and ‘The War Lord’, and we never learn the name of their planet.

His final script for Doctor Who was ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ (1974) which dealt with the issue of threats to the environment. The Doctor says at the end, ‘It’s not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution…It’s simply greed’.  

Dr Who, The War Games

Mac drew on 25 years of writing experience for his book Writing for Television (1974), in which he explained the craft involved and also gave practical advice such as the need to get an agent. Andrew Cartmel (script editor on Doctor Who 1987-1989) says of this book:

I still remember Malcolm Hulke’s book— a glossy black hardcover with a red typewriter on the cover. It was packed with good advice (keep your submission letter — these days it would be a submission email — very short and to the point) and also schooled me in the arcane script formatting that was de rigeur in those days… you kept a vertical slab of half the page blank, theoretically so that camera directions could be written in. It was a practical guide and also an inspiration. It was my bible. And thanks in no small measure to it, and to Hulke’s common sense guidance, it was only a few years before I found myself working as the script editor on Doctor Who — where I discovered that the same Malcolm Hulke had been one of the mainstays of the writing team during the golden age of the show.

Mac was also an active member of his trade union: the Television and Screen Writers’ Guild, formed on 13 May 1959. Ted Willis, a successful writer for stage, television and film (and former member of the Young Communist League) was elected chair of the new body.

In 1960 Mac and Peter Yeldham edited the first three issues of the union’s new quarterly newsletter Guild News. In 1969, Mac also edited the Writers Guide, produced by the Guild for aspiring writers.  The second edition, which appeared in 1970, included the following upbeat assessment:

‘The Guild is strong, it needs to be stronger. It is essential that anyone who works in films, television or radio joins immediately because individually we are nothing, collectively we can win for ourselves proper recompense commensurate with the inestimable contribution we make to our society.’

Among the other television series he wrote for were: Gert and Daisy, Tell It to the Marines, No Hiding Place, Danger Man, Gideon’s Way, Ghost Squad, The Protectors and United! Mac worked as script editor on Crossroads, Spyder’s Web and an Australian series Woobinda: Animal Doctor and also wrote the scripts for two films: Life in Danger (1959) and The Man in the Back Seat (1961).

Malcolm died on 6 July 1979.  Terrance Dicks recalls that, as a convinced atheist,  he had  left orders that there was to be no priest, no hymns or other ceremony at  his funeral and his friends therefore 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’.

A common theme in a good deal of Mac’s work  was illusion and deception: the police in This Day in Fear are not the police; the stamp collectors  in ‘The Mauritius Penny’  are not harmless philatelists; the generals  in ‘The War Games’ are aliens; and so on. His message to the audience? Question what you think you see or what you are being told by the powerful. Ask yourself what is really going on.  As the Doctor says in ‘The Faceless Ones’ : ‘Things are not always what they seem.’

I  would also suggest  that in his non-fiction writings – Here is Drama, The Making of Doctor Who, The Writers Guide and  Writing for Television –  he seeks  to demystify,  to hack through the technical jargon  and accretions of tradition, and help the reader understand what are admittedly complex topics. As he wrote in the first chapter of Writing for Television entitled ’What You Don’t Know You  Don’t Know’: ‘The more we learn  about a complex subject, the more we realise  there is to learn. And we can only start when we acknowledge there is something to learn.’

Mac believed  that writing was a craft, and should be respected (and paid properly ) but that  it was a craft that, with imagination and hard work, could be learned and that there was an onus on those who had been successful to help others onto the first rung of the ladder. The final word must surely go to his good friend Terrance; he was ‘a very kind and generous man.’

Michael Herbert’s published work includes Never Counted Out! (a biography of Len Johnson, the black Manchester boxer and CPGB member)and ‘For the sake of the women who are to come after’: Manchester’s Radical Women 1914 to 1945.

A much more extensive post on Malcolm Hulke can be found at: https://fantasiesofpossibility.wordpress.com/2020/06/25/doctor-who-and-the-communist-the-work-and-politics-of-malcolm-hulke-1924-197

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