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Letts, Barry (1925-2009)

Producer, Director, Actor, Writer

Main image of Letts, Barry (1925-2009)

After starting as an actor in live television, Barry Letts became one of the medium's most respected and prolific writers, producers and directors. He is best remembered for helming Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89) during the Jon Pertwee years, and later produced some of the BBC's most popular early evening classic serials.

Letts had already embarked on a repertory career when he was called up to the Royal Navy in WWII, serving as a sub-lieutenant in the Coastal Forces. After demob he took the lead in public information film To the Public Danger (d. Terence Fisher, 1948), and following supporting roles in Scott of the Antarctic (d. Charles Frend, 1948) and The Cruel Sea (d. Frend, 1953) began working regularly in live television. A growing family, combined with a self-confessed inability to regulate his finances, later led him to supplement his acting income with writing work, penning several episodes of soap The Newcomers (BBC, 1965).

Upon passing the BBC's director's course, one of his first assignments was Doctor Who serial 'The Enemy of the World' (BBC, tx. 1967-68), and in 1969 he was offered the producer's post. Letts successfully managed the transition into colour production and a new, largely-earth-bound setting, and in tandem with script editor Terrance Dicks created a hugely popular character in the form of the Doctor's arch-rival the Master. Letts' ecological concerns and Buddhist beliefs lent depth to stories such as 'The Green Death' (1973) and 'Planet of the Spiders' (1974), and one of his final acts as producer was to hire the then unknown Tom Baker as Pertwee's successor, setting the scene for the show's continued popularity.

Throughout the 70s and 80s Letts maintained his successful partnership with Dicks, earning a BAFTA nomination for Jane Eyre (BBC, 1983) and a Daytime Emmy on A Tale of Two Cities (BBC, 1980). Following The Pickwick Papers (BBC, 1985), he taught on the BBC's directing course. Although battling cancer in his final years, he remained a thoughtful and courteous presence at Doctor Who conventions, continuing his contributions to DVD commentaries until the month before his death.

Richard Hewett

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cruel Sea, The (1952)Cruel Sea, The (1952)

Distinguished Ealing war film about the inexperienced crew of a naval warship

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Reach for the Sky (1956)Reach for the Sky (1956)

Classic flagwaver about pilot Douglas Bader's triumph over adversity

Thumbnail image of San Demetrio London (1943)San Demetrio London (1943)

Inspiring tale of wartime heroism based on a true story

Thumbnail image of Scott of the Antarctic (1948)Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

Lavish recreation of Captain Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole

Thumbnail image of Sense and Sensibility (1981)Sense and Sensibility (1981)

Ornate adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

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