THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE YOUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE YOUTH! An Interview with Roger Noel Cook
ALTERED VISTAS: So tell us about Roger Noel Cook…
Roger Noel Cook: Born poor, 1946… Gemini! Frantic to be rich!
Age 16… 1962… Tea boy at IPC Magazines on the comics Valiant and Knockout and Buster! I immediately idolised all the scriptwriters and pestered them 24/7. My first script was a Captain Hurricane for Valiant… Aged seventeen!
It was the 1960s and anything was possible and I forced the issue. I was soon writing freelance scripts in the evenings for five guineas a time. (Heaps of money in those days.) I believe I was the youngest freelance writer IPC had ever engaged.
So how did you end up at TV Comic?
TV Comic offered me the job of staff writer plus freelance in 1964 aged eighteen. This was an awesome task. I had to write Popeye, Beetle Bailey, The TV Terrors, Ladybird Adventurers (with John Canning) for my contract, but I was given Doctor Who and other commissions for evening freelance (plus I was also still freelancing for IPC on Buster etc).
The editor was a fabulous man… Dick Millington… inventor of Mighty Moth and now in his seventies still churning out the I Don’t Believe It! strip every day in The Daily Mail. A magic man!
On average I was writing twenty scripts a week at five to seven guineas a time. By nineteen I had an E type Jaguar! Poverty no more.
Twenty scripts a week? You must have been exhausted! Do you think that had an effect on the narrative and logic of some of the stories?
It is hard to imagine what it means to write four new scripts per day! This is not conducive for a nineteen-year-old to develop as a mature writer in the way Russell T. Davies would probably recommend. So YES! Narrative and logic certainly suffered dramatically under these conditions. No excuses. I wanted the kids to have excitement… whether the loose ends were tied up by story end was more in the hands of fate.
But here’s a thought… the requirement for stories with logic is to my mind violently at odds with an ageless man touring the universe inside a telephone box… but I only dwell on that when I’m in denial...
And how far in advance were you writing the Doctor Who strips?
Usually just three or four weeks…
Did you write the stories on a weekly basis or get all the scripts done for a single story in a single sitting?
Because very few of the strips had titles printed on the page, the actual titles of many of the stories have long been open to debate. I assume you did give each story a title?
All the scenarios submitted to the Beeb would’ve had a working title. Not all reached the printed page, it’s true.
And was there ever any interference or comment from the Doctor Who production office?
ALL my story ideas were approved by the BBC but the actual finished scripts were left entirely to me to carry out. (None of these would’ve taken more than a few hours to write. Annual stories, even less). However I felt a lot of the early stories were in any case wasted on artist Neville Main who, although a nice man, was a useless artist and went on to ruin Popeye.
After nearly a year he was replaced by Bill Mevin…
Bill Mevin (1965) was a lunatic appointment to draw Doctor Who. Bill was a whiz-bang brilliant cartoonist who I went on to work with extremely well on Popeye but straight artwork was just not him! He invented Wee Sporty and remains one of the funniest men I have ever met. Cartoonists simply can’t DO straight art!
John Canning was the first artist to ‘get’ the Doctor! The Troughton period was visually the most satisfying in my opinion.
He could be a bit scrappy at times, though, especially in the annuals…
Canning was guilty of appalling haste with the annual work which he dashed off for what he considered to be a pittance. Although TV Comic paid very well it could never compete with the kind of money Canning could command in the advertising market. He was paid fortunes by Ladybird and many other companies... serious money.
So what was the office set-up at TV Comic in those days? What was a typical working day?
Fabulous! Beautiful open plan office almost on top of the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. Arrive ten o’clock in whatever sports car I was currently driving. Drop off my sixteen-year-old first wife (I kid you not!) at her Ad Agency on the way. Get on the phone to Bill Mevin (who never left his country house. He had a phobia about going outside his domain. Hysterical eccentric.) Laugh like a drain for twenty minutes as we figured out a Popeye script. Finish that by eleven-thirty and crack into Diddymen (I used to write stuff for Ken Dodd for his TV shows as well as his strip. Spent time in the Palladium Theatre chatting out Jam Butty Mines gags with the Doddster once a month!)
Would finish two scripts by lunch (or I wouldn’t eat)… Schedule was everything.
Afternoon, I would probably tackle something like Orlando and then close the day on the phone to Bill Titcombe figuring out a Tom and Jerry script. Go for a drink with the three secretaries in the office or team up with my rock band in the evening, which was how I lost my first wife. Would tend to mull Doctor Who over late evening, get some thoughts together. Have a courier take the scenario across to Roy Williams at the Beeb the next day. Probably do a TV Terrors the next day followed by a Ladybirds Adventurer for Canning. Some afternoons I’d begin tackling a hundred page annual. I’d get a standard 950 guineas to write ALL the scripts and stories for a Tom and Jerry or Orlando annual or holiday special. Weekends would be IPC freelance. Buster! Cor! Whizzer & Chips! Rock band gig/session. Begin looking for second wife (who I’m still with and is the most fabulous woman on this or any other planet.) Busy times. Happy times.
The first Doctor Who strip was The Klepton Parasites where we are introduced to the Doctor’s grandchildren John and Gillian. Were they your creation?
This is really hard for me to recall but I seem to remember the grandchildren coming out of a discussion with Dick Millington (the editor) about the importance of the readers having someone like themselves to identify with…
They actually seem to mature slightly through the course of their comic strip adventures until the Doctor packs them off to university. Was this aging intentional?
My recollection is they were reducing my capacity to ‘free think’ about what kind of adventures I could place the Doctor in if he always had John and Gillian in tow… It also made the frames over-crowded a lot of times from John Canning’s point of view. It would’ve been a montage of restrictions leading to their eventual eviction...
To be replaced by Jamie, played on TV by Fraser Hines…
The advent of a popular actor had to be responded to instantly as far as TV Comic was concerned. John and Gillian were no loss.
I can’t let The Hijackers of Thrax go by without mentioning the immortal line ‘Use the vegetables! We’ve nothing else to defend ourselves with!’
The Hijackers of Thrax! I do recall the “Use the vegetables!” line and I believe this was the result of half an hour of laughing myself into a hernia with Bill Mevin over a Popeye idea which was to feature Olive Oyle being used as dental floss by a Sea Monster. It must’ve set the mood for the writing day!
And then the next strip features the Zarbi, albeit not that closely tied in to the story that had just finished on TV…
Zarbi… I can’t recall why Web Planet appeared to be out of step with the TV version. It’s a blank to me… although I recall the Zarbi and the hype at the time… I have some blanks and blind spots… It’s been forty-seven years!!!!
Shark Bait introduces us to the Doctor’s trusty Gladstone bag…
The Gladstone bag… Yes. This was the ‘catch all’ saviour of all script dead ends. Any further comment would just be defensive.
So tell us about the Trods…
The Trods were invented by me because the dispute with Terry Nation meant we couldn’t use the Daleks for a long time. When the dispute was finally resolved I immediately EXTERMINATED them! The Daleks were a big deal and sales increased markedly.
But then they in turn were ousted in favour of the Cybermen…
These were extremely popular and response through the mailbag was huge from the kids. Massive loyalty in those days. Kids had far less distractions.
It’s 1966 and the BBC has just turned William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton. How did you feel about this change?
Troughton was an infinitely better character actor and hence, in my opinion, a far better expression of the Doctor. Indeed, I don’t really think he has been improved on… Tenant would run him second in my opinion.
Master of Spiders is much-loved, usually for all the wrong reasons. I’m thinking here of the Doctor blasting a giant spider with a ray gun whilst shouting ‘Die, hideous creature… Die!’
Master of Spiders was based on success I had with The Shrinker at IPC which was enormously popular when Buster was selling 500,000 copies a week. I always felt Doctor Who could be treated differently in comic strip. Early Doctor Who TV stories, although much better written than my own, often felt claustrophobic to me. Studio bound! Hence my use of outlandish weaponry which may well now offend Doctor Who purists. Doubtless much of what I did during my writing rampage carries that burden. However, the mailbag feedback from the kids who read TV Comic at the time was ninety percent ecstatic. Pity! I might’ve been forced to slow down had criticism to the editor indicated a need for me to do so. Maybe the alternative entertainment available to inspire kids (and writers) in the Sixties was less awesome than it is in today’s world of tech wizardry?
Egyptian Escapade with its accurate historical background is unusual. Were you particularly interested in this period?
Yes…a personal fascination for Gordon of Khartoum was the inspiration.
On this website, in my review of The Witches, I asked ‘What was the writer smoking when he came up with this story?’…
Well I’ve never smoked, but I was usually high as a kite on adrenaline and enthusiasm for non-stop writing and I was surrounded by maniacs. TV Comic was owned by the TV Times which at the time was the most successful UK publication (11 million copies per week). There was heaps of money about and lots of talented artists coming and going in the office. Nobody who has lived through any kind of success in the Sixties can really verbalise it! Disjointed comes to mind!
The last of the recurring villains from the TV series are the Quarks. On TV, they’re robot servants of the Dominators. In your strips they’re fiendish autonomous conquerors with a barking mad vendetta against Doctor Who. How much information were you given about the TV series monsters? The Quarks make their TV Comic debut just twenty days after their TV debut, so how did that work?
This was a common problem. Usually I was working blind with very little knowledge and only an instruction not to clash with TV story lines insofar as I had ANY idea of what they might be. Feedback on these kind of issues was not good. Everyone at the Beeb was hectic and then there was the usual copyright fog which I think was probably the case with The Dominators! I had to run with what little I knew and we had deadlines which required us to print two or three weeks ahead of distribution. What you have assumed to be twenty days may have been less than seven days as far as I was concerned.
Of course, the Quarks caused a few real-world problems too…
Copyright disputes were common. Creators of Doctor Who adversaries were aware of the bottomless pockets of TV Comic (backed by the TV Times, remember). I frequently had to respond to disputes by spinning a script round on a dime to keep us out of legal wrangles. Usually they got settled with more money.
Which led to a strip featuring the Yeti being hastily rewritten for the Ice Apes…
Yeti and Ice Apes were just another chapter in this ongoing copyright saga.
The Electrodes features the Doctor improbably managing a rock band…
The Electrodes was a disaster and I take full blame. I was lead singer in a rising rock band at the time (another Cook distraction I’m afraid on the Road to Greed).
But I can’t move on until I’ve mentioned the Doctor’s immortal line of dialogue, ‘I’ll grab Muff and Fuzz, you snatch the other two’…
Muff, Fuzz and Snatch were perhaps pointers to the career that lay ahead for me…
You saw out Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in a series of stories tied unusually closely to television continuity, with him exiled to Earth and only later regenerated into Jon Pertwee… Did the BBC insist you ground the Doctor?
The segue of Troughton to Pertwee via the scarecrow scenario actually had me pausing (uncharacteristically) for thought… I liked the outcome. I never received dictates from the BBC production office. Occasional suggestions. They always insisted on seeing my one page scenarios every time there was a story change. These had to be approved and signed off on by Roy Williams. Once that was done I was free to go and I was very rarely criticised. With hindsight, I’m amazed.
And so we enter the era of the Third Doctor. It’s now 1970. You’ve been doing this for six years. Did you never get holidays? How had things changed on TV Comic in that time?
I did get holidays but like most writers these meant I was simply writing in a different location. I’d go to a villa in Spain and be writing by the pool while my wife enjoyed the sun etc.
And how had TV Comic changed in that time?
TV Comic remained well funded and well run by talented people up until I left. It was just that I needed to get seriously rich and for that I needed the likes of Paul Raymond and Richard Desmond. Fortunately, they needed me… so I moved on!
Would you have liked to have written for Doctor Who the TV series?
Had I have been asked to join the TV writing team I would’ve had the luxury of dedicating weeks to really considering the very best way to exploit the Doctor in a TV environment. Life (fortunately, as it turned out) dictated I had to find a different way to make money and I can say with some certainty Russell T. Davies doesn’t own six homes and isn’t in tax exile. Brilliant as he may be.
Your last story for the strip was The Fishermen of Carpantha…
After The Fishermen of Carpantha, I was made an offer to return to IPC that was ground-breaking in terms of the money on the table. I returned to write Toffs ‘n’ Toughs, Ivor Lott and Tony Broke, Headless Harry, Ghost Ship… and a whole heap of stuff for what seemed like enormous fees at the time.
At this point miracles began… Tony Blackburn was playing my band’s latest single on the radio, and I was asked by Dick Kravitz of Warner Bros publishing (Who owned MAD magazine, my favourite rag at the time) to be their youngest ever UK CEO. I took the job at an unbelievable salary just as lifelong pal Tony Power and I convinced the then mere millionaire Paul Raymond to buy the tiny A5 title: Men Only for ten thousand quid. We then turned that into Paul Raymond Publications and made Paul Raymond the first UK publishing billionaire. Career chaos. Too many choices. The success eventually killed Tony, aged thirty-nine, and I was on my way to heaps of money and away from scriptwriting, sadly.
Eventually I left Warner Bros to help Tony build PR Pubs. We then invented the first men’s magazine on video Electric Blue, which became the world’s best selling video series with over 150,000,000 copies sold. I wrote and recorded most of the music… and then retired in my thirties for seven years.
Eventually, Richard Desmond, then only a millionaire, approached me to take over Penthouse and build a soft porn empire to rival Paul Raymond. During this extremely rewarding process I went into tax exile and Richard became a double billionaire buying Express Newspapers and The Daily Star in the process.
Amazingly this brought me full cycle… In 2004 Richard commissioned me at one thousand pounds per day to produce the first tabloid 3D picture strip. It was called Big Shot and it was of course a soccer star soap. It ran for 365 strips and cost over a third of a million pounds. Probably the most expensive strip in publishing history. Both Richard and I realised the costs of 3D colour to occupy less than a page in a daily newspaper were unsustainable. Time to retire AGAIN!
So how does it feel to be the most prolific Doctor Who writer in any medium ever?
Most prolific writer of Doctor Who… certainly! The best?... not by a million galactic light years… but I loved every minute of it as a nineteen-year-old at the time… A writer way too young…
I’m able to look back at prolific picture strip writing with wiser eyes now. You’re either a perfectionist or you’re prolific. I chose the latter.
My son Adam has just won the Marbella International Film Festival aged nineteen with his first 3D animation The Roboteers which has just been showcased in Cannes. Cartoon Network are showing interest. Adam is a perfectionist and is a far better writer/producer and director than his father. He has already collaborated with James (Grand Theft Auto) Worrall to write and produce The Pole Position Challenge free online F1 racing game featuring F1 superstar David Coulthard.
The acorn has fallen a long way from the tree!
Does it surprise you that people are still enjoying the strips?
If they do it certainly surprises me. I do think comics of themselves represented a wonderful form of entertainment and I miss them enormously. As a child Beano on Thursday and Dandy on Tuesday were a total thrill and appreciated beyond anything today’s children can imagine with all their choices. I wish I could go back and do EVERYTHING better… I’ll just have to settle for having been prolific rather than terrific!
So what of the future?
I’m starting work on a script for a graphic novel (very big medium in the States). It’s called Guns ‘n’ Moses, about a right-wing, Bible-quoting Bruce Willis/Mickey Rourke-style private eye who uses a New Testament with a Kevlar cover to deflect bullets. It’ll be fast and ill thought out… but it’ll be exciting, I promise!
Roger Noel Cook, thank you very much.