By Laura Mayne (@laurajanemayne)
Two notable things happened in the British film industry in 1950. The first was that cinema admissions fell very slightly, to 1,396 million down from 1,430 in the previous year – which was not unusual, except that in each subsequent year admissions would fall so rapidly that by 1965 that figure was sitting at an astonishingly low 328 million.[i] The second was the founding of the company Film Finances, which specialised in offering completion guarantees to film producers. The two events were not wholly unrelated. In the fifties major studios were scaling back their production interests, cinemas were closing en-masse and the entire landscape of independent production was changing. For producers, financing a film was becoming increasingly complex and risky. A guarantee from Film Finances meant the company would (for a fee) absorb the blow if a film went over budget, as well as stepping in to ensure that it would be completed – essentially a form of insurance that would ease the concerns of financiers and distributors. For 66 years Film Finances have offered completion bonds to film producers, and the company has been a mainstay of the industry as a result.[ii]
The company guaranteed 145 films in the sixties, around 15% of all the films released in that decade. One of those was Doctor Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng, 1965) which starred Peter Cushing in the eponymous role and was to be the first ever Doctor Who feature film. The plot sees the Doctor and his granddaughters Susan and Barbara – as well as Barbara’s boyfriend Ian – as they accidentally land the TARDIS amid a civil war on the hostile alien planet Skaro. The film was based on, but canonically unrelated to, the BBC television show (for example, Peter Cushing isn’t commonly referred to as being the ‘second Doctor’!). There are also a few key differences between the BBC programme and the film; Cushing plays, not an alien, but a human scientist called “Dr. Who” (rather than being simply ‘The Doctor’ here ‘Dr.’ is the honorific and ‘Who’ the surname) whilst on television the characters of Barbara and Ian were Susan’s schoolteachers, and their romantic status is never made explicit. Cushing’s Doctor also takes on a more benevolent grandfatherly role than his more curmudgeonly television counterpart (played by William Hartnell). Dr Who and the Daleks was a success which paved the way for its bigger-budget sequel Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD (1967) and led to the sixties craze known as “Dalekmania” (which Kevin Davies’ 1995 documentary explores in more detail).
(Promotion for the film suggests the colour element was expected to be a big draw, particularly as the TV show was to remain black and white until 1969)
The film was to be production company Amicus’ first real foray into science fiction. The cinema of the era often blurred the lines between the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres, but Dr Who and the Daleks was to be aimed at a family audience. This presented a problem for Amicus, which – following the success of Freddie Francis’ 1965 anthology film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors – was becoming established as a company which produced horror movies. Producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky didn’t want to confuse cinema goers familiar with their growing brand (and Peter Cushing was also known for his horror roles, which might also add confusion) so both Dalek films were made under the company name ‘Aaru’ productions. It’s worth noting, though, that by 1965 Amicus had produced just as many musicals as horror films, having already capitalised on the trad jazz trend in It’s Trad, Dad (Richard Lester, 1962) then moving on to make the teen pop vehicle Just for Fun (Gordon Flemyng, 1963). These films may have been thoroughly forgotten within a couple of years but they do suggest that Amicus had something a knack for exploiting fads.
(Amicus – more diverse in the sixties than is usually assumed; by the seventies the company was working almost exclusively in the horror genre)
In order to procure a guarantee from Film Finances a producer had to submit a script, a detailed budget and a shooting schedule to the company. Production Consultant John Croydon would then analyse whether the film could be made for the stated budget and make a recommendation as to whether Film Finances should offer the producers a guarantee. Croydon (who had worked in the industry in various capacities for decades) was unafraid of stating his opinion, and his reports could be colourful, hyperbolic and at times scathing.
The Daleks: costumes or props?
In the case of Dr. Who and the Daleks, Croydon was (somewhat uncharacteristically) nonplussed by the content of the film, which he assumed would be much like the television show in tone. However, he felt the shooting schedule didn’t match up to the projected budget of £135,000 (which was low for even a small British film at that time). He considered producer Milton Subotsky to be ‘overreaching himself’, as the film, which involved a significant amount of special effects, came with the potential to go badly wrong in execution. According to Croydon, the script disclosed a ‘multiplicity of production hazards.’[iii] He conceded that these hazards were probably no more than those involved in making the TV show, although the film’s producers would be starting from scratch whereas the BBC were ‘doing this sort of thing all the time’. In terms of the electronic devices, monitoring screens and other props and effects Croydon considered that the BBC workshops and FX departments much better equipped to deal with them.
He was also unsure how the film-makers would handle the Daleks onset:
What is their design, and how do they work? We must remember that one of their principle weapons of offence and defence is flame throwing, which is not the easiest of film FX to make practical, and to be certain of operation whenever it is needed.
Part of this wariness rested on the fact that the documents sent to Croydon were unclear about whether the Daleks could be classified in the budget as costumes or props. If they were to be classed as ‘costumes’, the £650 budget outlined did not seem anywhere near sufficient.
In terms of production costs versus over-ambitious effects Croydon offered, as an example, a scene in the film where Dr. Who lands with Susan, Ian and Barbara in the middle of a petrified forest on the Dalek planet Skaro:
Everything in this forest is supposed to snap and crumble at the lightest touch. What, therefore, is the problem of re-dressing between takes?
(The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian land in the petrified forest)
In light of all this Croydon called the proposed budget of £135,000 ‘nonsense’, and called for further meetings to reconcile the discrepancies between script, schedule and budget:
… without some pretty good explanations I have to say that in my opinion the film cannot be shot in the time allowed… The producers, the production designer and the effects man would have to show and demonstrate to me a very valid formula of set construction and operation before I could accept the idea that this film could be shot in six weeks.
‘Cost control’ measures
Croydon was a pretty meticulous cost accountant and as he predicted Dr Who and the Daleks did end up going significantly over budget. A lot of the Amicus films guaranteed by Film Finances did, in fact, although helpfully they also had a tendency to become profitable and to make their money back. Dr. Who came in over budget by £28,529, with a final cost of £163,529. This was largely because the film went over its shooting schedule by 4 days, and when this happens costs are apt to spiral quickly.
If a film exceeded its budget, their standard legal contract gave Film Finances the right step in and take over the production to ensure it was completed in good time, although the company were usually extremely reluctant to exercise that right, or to interfere with the artistic content of the film. This was exactly what happened with Dr. Who and the Daleks, and the company were very keen to point out to executive producer Joe Vagoda that this was purely a ‘cost control’ measure- they would not be interfering creatively.
John Hill argues in his seminal book Sex, Class and Realism that as studios like Rank and ABC scaled back their production interests in the late 50s/early 60s, independents gained more creative control (in terms of freedom to make their own productions) but that this was ultimately a trade-off; more creative freedom meant taking on financial uncertainty and bigger risks.[iv] In the changing landscape of British film production, the completion guarantor was important to an industry in which independent companies simply didn’t have the financial muscle to absorb failure.
[With thanks to the Film Finances archive, and also to Dr Charles Drazin for his comments and advice on this post]
[i] Terence Kelly, Graham Norton and George Perry, A Competitive Cinema, (IEA, 1966)
[ii] For a full account of Film Finances, see Charles Drazin’s 201- book 2011 book A Bond for Bond: Film Finances and Dr No (Film Finances, 2011).
[iii] John Croydon to Film Finances, Film Finances Archive, Realised Film ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’. All other quotes by Croydon from this source unless otherwise stated.
[iv] John Hill, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema, 1956-1963, (BFI, 1986)