Published on November 20, 2013 | by Sarah Lafer


UAL grads help Doctor Who reach his half-century

The Silence

The Silence – one of Wimbledon grad Howard Burden’s costume challenges [Mary Clarke]

While Doctor Who may have saved many people and planets over the course of his 50 years of time travelling, he’s also given many opportunities for UAL students and alumni to build their careers working on the programme.

Having run for nearly 800 episodes, the Doctor and his time-travelling adventures form the longest running sci-fi programme in television history.

A number of UAL alumni have come out of their degree programmes to find their career paths crossing those of the Doctor.

Penny Howarth is one of the longest-serving props makers on the show and has been credited since series one in 2005; she graduated with a BA in theatre design at Wimbledon in 2000 and has also worked on productions such as The Corpse Bride, The Fantastic Mr Fox and Batman Begins.

Howard Burden, the show’s costume designer, studied at Wimbledon College of Arts and has worked on Robin Hood, Whitechapel and Red Dwarf. His work saw him create the costume for veteran actor Sir John Hurt who appears in the 50th anniversary special episode on November 23.

Work experience

Florence Tasker, who finished her BA in Theatre: design for performance at Wimbledon in 2011, worked as a Petty Cash Buyer for series seven.

“I got to make some of the oddest stuff like a burnt soufflé, alien fruit and Punch and Judy puppets but that’s Doctor Who for you,” she said.

“I really liked going to locations as we were often in beautiful places and I loved seeing the space transform into another planet or time, pretty exciting. There was always a buzz on set. You knew that this was something special and you could feel it.

“My particular favourite set to walk around was the submarine in Cold War. I had helped find the pond liner so that the set could be flooded,” Tasker told ALN.

Tasker got the role by writing to the art director asking for work experience; the timing was right as they were looking for a petty cash buyer at the time, and she moved to Cardiff a week after the interview.

Set design

“After I graduated I was set on being a theatre designer, but the reality was I couldn’t be so picky,” she said. She did work experience in TV and realised she wanted to pursue this path. Today, Tasker has just finished working on the graphic design for a short film and is also involved designing sets for a theatre company.

Her advice for art students is to be confident, consistent and not take things personally. “Keep bright and happy, that should come across in your emails as they need to see if you’ll fit in their team”, she said. “Once you’ve got your foot in the door it’s amazing. Don’t be late, keep professional and don’t be that person sent home early at the wrap party.”

The BBC show has become an established part of British pop culture and generations have watched and enjoyed it. Airing since 1963, William Hartnell became the first actor to portray the Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He called himself the Doctor and surrounded himself in an air of mystery as no-one knew his real name.



The Daleks have fought the Doctor for almost 50 years [Mary Clarke]

When Hartnell wanted to leave the show in 1966, the aspect of regeneration was introduced into the storyline – the Doctor can change his body when he faces death; he has done this ten times so far, always giving him a new face, allowing new actors to take on the lead role.

Matt Smith, with Jenna Coleman as his companion Clara, plays the current and eleventh Doctor.

CSM graduate Keith Dunne worked as a set decorator on the programme. A few years after finishing his BA in theatre design in 2000, he did a traineeship within the BBC as a trainee art director, which turned out to be successful.

He was offered to work on Doctor Who after spending two years creating the visual work on the first two seasons of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood alongside Edward Thomas and his team. His role was to create a visual narrative to accompany the story: “This would involve picking the right colour and texture for a wall, to a chair in a living room, to a pencil in a hand, right through to a flashing light on a space console,” he said.

“What I loved most about my time with Doctor Who was working with some of the industry’s most creative and challenging individuals that were determined to recreate a world of magical story telling, and bring the ‘family’ back to watching TV. Something that has been lacking in past years!”

Mad man in a box

“I think its success is a result of the basic ‘human’ need for escapism. Who doesn’t want to jump inside a time machine which has endless possibilities, can go anywhere, any place, any time? What’s more who wouldn’t want to be a friend of the Doctor, all 11 of them, a mad man in a blue box?”

Dunne advises students to gain as much practical experience while they are at university. “During my time at Central Saint Martins I spent most evenings and weekends designing small sets and costumes for the pub theatres in London, earning £25 to nothing. It wasn’t easy but what it gave me a wealth of practical experience and a CV that accompanied my degree when I graduated.”

Alexei Sayle played the DJ in the episode The Revelation of the Daleks in 1987. He graduated from Chelsea in 1974 and is now a well known stand-up comedian, actor and author.

He also made an appearance in Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, Arabian Nights and The Thief Lord as well as hosting his own comedy sketch shows. Right now he is touring the UK.

BA fashion design with marketing graduate Tabitha Fordham worked as a freelance production runner on the upcoming special after she graduated from CSM in 2013 and designed her first collection for FORDHAM.

‘Scary and creepy’

Doctor Who ran until 1989 portraying seven different Time Lords in 26 seasons. There was a decline, however, which led to the show being taken off air. Several attempts were made to revive the show, including a TV film in 1996, but it was not until 2005 that the Doctor made a full comeback.

Many actors who studied at CSM’s Drama Centre have also appeared in the series, including Simon Callow, Andrew Tiernan, Don Warrington, Penelope Wilton and John Simm, who played the reincarnation of the Doctor’s arch-enemy, The Master.

Current UAL students are big fans of the show, often associating fond childhood memories with the series: “I used to watch it as a child and I liked the surrealism about it,” said Anna Mieie, BA fine art student at Chelsea. “It was a bit scary and creepy, but it was nice to sit down with my mum and brothers and we would all watch it together.

“They would always reinvent the characters, but the main concept doesn’t change. That’s why people still like to watch it. If it was popular 50 years ago, why shouldn’t it be today?”

“I love Doctor Who!” Jaz Crush, BA Fine Art student at Chelsea said. “It is childish but has an adult storyline, so people of all ages can watch it.”

The 50th anniversary episode will air on BBC-1 at 7.50pm on November 23, and in 3D at cinemas across the UK.

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3 Responses to UAL grads help Doctor Who reach his half-century

  1. David Rogers says:

    I am a CSM graduate (1980). I was a BBCtv visual effects assistant from 1981 to 1985 and I designed effects on four Dr Whos including the 20th anniversary ‘Five Doctors’. As an Assistant Designer (the Beeb was big on title deflation in those days) I designed effects but didn’t get a credit. However, the Visual Effects Designer on that show was John Brace who studied Industrial Design at CSM, like me, but I think he left before graduating. I’ve got plenty of stories and I’m sure he has to!

  2. Louise Page says:

    Louise Page was the Costume Designer on Doctor Who from 2005 -2010 covering the entire 10th Doctor era designing a total of 45 episodes, winning a Bafta Cymru for her work on Series 2, and most known for her design of the 10th Doctor, David Tennant. Louise specialised in Costume at Wimbledon School of Art and left in 1982.

    • Thank you both for your comments – unfortunately we weren’t able to reach all the UAL alumni who have worked on the show over the years, let alone include them all in the piece, there are so many of you; hopefully we’ll get more comments here so we can try and recognise the contribution of as many alumni as possible.

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