To Put You in the Picture

Robert Banks Stewart needs no introduction to Doctor Who aficionados as the writer of Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom. Fans will no doubt also be aware of his huge and distinguished pedigree as a writer of all sorts of television, including such well-loved genre shows as The Avengers and The Saint, and creator or co-creator of such comparatively ‘straight’ fare as Lovejoy and Bergerac. Such is the breadth and extent of his CV that it seems virtually impossible to do justice to his illustrious career in a single volume, which might explain why he hasn’t really tried.

To Put You in the Picture purports to be a personal history of how Stewart broke into writing for television following stints as a copy editor and cub reporter. In point of fact, this book seems much less like a career biography and much more a memoir, its focus being on recounting wide-ranging anecdotes and dropping names the way a Gatling gun drops cartridges. None of this is a bad thing in itself, of course, but with Stewart’s vast experience and the volume’s small size –weighing in at slightly under two hundred pages – the result can at times feel like a best-of album, reciting a favoured tale from each telly series Stewart participated in and then moving swiftly on to the next dinner party story.

For instance, I suspect that any Doctor Who fan purchasing this book would be disappointed to discover that Stewart spends only a little over four pages discussing his time writing for the show, and this includes a page largely filled with one of Jamie Lenman’s charming illustrations. The book is scattered with caricature sketches by the DWM cartoonist and they are both well-drawn and amusing; but their presence does add to the feel of this book as a lightweight volume of reminiscences rather than a thoroughgoing account of Stewart’s stellar career.

From the point of view of the Doctor Who fan, there is also some mild frustration to be felt at the slight mistiming of this book. It has been written recently enough that Peter Capaldi gets a name-check as the current Doctor, but not so recently that Stewart has chance to react to the recent Zygon two-parter broadcast as part of the latest series. Stewart explains in this book that the Zygon menace was a co-creation of his and Robert Holmes’s, and it would be enjoyable to the fan to see his reaction to the way the new show has engaged (tampered?) with them. I appreciate that there is no way the author could have foreseen their resurgence, but one cannot help but realise the narrow margin by which this opportunity was missed.

Far more time is dedicated to the production of Bergerac – understandably, as this is the author’s own project and not simply another to which he contributed as a hired writer. There are also some good meaty stories in there that are not related to television at all; the tale of a harrowing sea voyage disrupted by an engine fire is captivating, not least because it adds a sense of depth and gravity largely absent from the rest of the book.

As a watcher of television in general, there is bound to be something here that you will be pleased and intrigued to learn; for instance, I did not know that Stewart had worked for a time at Associated London Scripts, the television writers’ “collective” put together by the great comedy writers of the sixties and seventies: Eric Sykes, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and the unsurpassable Spike Milligan. I have no doubt that having read that, it will become the first thing I recall whenever Stewart’s name is mentioned.

But if you are an enthusiast of Doctor Who minutiae looking for an insight into the creative process that went into producing the show during what many consider to be its greatest creative flowering, in the Holmes / Hinchcliffe era, then I would hesitate to recommend you add this book to your (no doubt crammed) shelves. Simply put, this book’s target readership is not the Target readership.