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Doctor Who and the communist: the work and politics of Malcolm Hulke 

Socialist historian MICHAEL HERBERT previews a not-to-be-missed treat for leftie sci-fi fans coming up in a Zoom meeting on June 10

MALCOLM (Mac) Hulke was a successful writer for television, radio, the cinema and the theatre from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

Born in 1924, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain   in June 1945, not, as he later wrote to a party official, because he was attracted to its Marxist philosophy, but because “I had just met a lot of Russian POWs in Norway, because the Soviet army had just then rolled back the Germans.” 

He appears to have remained a member until the late 1960s, although his relationship with the party hierarchy had its ups and downs.

Hulke began working as a writer with Eric Paice whom he had met at the left-wing Unity Theatre.

Their first success was The Day of Fear, broadcast in July 1958.

They went on to write single plays for the Sunday evening drama series Armchair Theatre and a series of science fiction dramas for children, Pathfinders in Space, in 1960. 

Hulke worked with Terrance Dicks on a number of scripts for the thriller series The Avengers in the early 1960s.  

This included Intercrime, which featured a criminal organisation ran as a commercial business.

Dicks went on to work on Doctor Who as the script editor and commissioned Hulke to write for the popular science fiction show, running since 1963.

Hulke wrote eight serials for Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974.

In The War Games (1969) — co-written with Terrance — The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Zoe (Wendy Padbury) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) land in the middle of what appears to be the first world war.

The Doctor explains: “We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.”

But they then discover that other wars from history, for example the American civil war and the Mexican revolutionary war are taking place in neighbouring zones.

They are not in fact on Earth, but on a planet on which the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer the galaxy, assisted by a renegade time lord, the War Chief. 

The Doctor succeeds in uniting soldiers from different eras into a force which attacks and takes over the aliens’ headquarters.  

In this story Hulke shows war as violent and pointless, controlled by ruthless leaders who place no value on human life.

He adds to this by not giving the aliens names, only titles such as “The Security Chief” and “The War Lord,” and we never learn the name of their planet. 

His final script for Doctor Who was Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) which dealt with the issue of threats to the environment.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) says at the end: “It’s not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution … It’s simply greed.”

Katy Manning (who played Jo Grant) in Doctor Who told me: “…we all really trusted his writing for us and had great respect for his work.”  

Hulke drew on 25 years of writing experience for his book  Writing for Television (1974) in which he explained the craft involved and also gave practical advice such as the need to get an agent.

Naturally, he encouraged young writers to join the trade union for writers: the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.

Andrew Cartmel (script editor of Doctor Who 1987-9) says of this book: “I still remember Malcolm Hulke’s book — a glossy black hardcover with a red typewriter on the cover.

“It was packed with good advice (keep your submission letter — these days it would be a submission email — very short and to the point) and also schooled me in the arcane script formatting that was de rigeur in those days … you kept a vertical slab of half the page blank, theoretically so that camera directions could be written in.

“It was a practical guide and also an inspiration. It was my bible. And thanks in no small measure to it, and to Hulke’s common-sense guidance, it was only a few years before I found myself working as the script editor on Doctor Who — where I discovered that the same Malcolm Hulke had been one of the mainstays of the writing team during the golden age of the show.”

Hulke was an active member of his trade union: the Television and Screen Writers’ Guild, formed on May 13 1959.

Ted Willis, a successful writer for stage, television and film (and former member of the Young Communist League), was elected chair of the new body. 

In 1960 Hulke and Peter Yeldham edited the first three issues of the union’s new quarterly newsletter, Guild News.

In 1966 he compiled a report for the guild on writers for radio.  

In 1969 Hulke edited the Writer’s Guide produced by the guild for aspiring writers.  

The second edition, which appeared in 1970, included the following upbeat assessment: “The guild is strong, it needs to be stronger. It is essential that anyone who works in films, television or radio joins immediately because individually we are nothing, collectively we can win for ourselves proper recompense commensurate with the inestimable contribution we make to our society.”

Hulke died on July 6 1979. Dicks recalls that, as a convinced atheist, he had left orders that there were to be no priest, no hymns or other ceremony at his funeral and that therefore his friends sat by the coffin not knowing what to do.  

“Finally Eric Paice stood up, slapped the coffin and said: ‘Well, cheerio, Mac’ and wandered out. We all followed him.”

The final word must surely go to his good friend Dicks; he was “a very kind and generous man.”

Michael Herbert’s published work includes Never Counted Out! (a biography of Len Johnson, the black Manchester boxer and CPGB member); Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and His Career in Television; and For the Sake of the Women who are to Come After: Manchester’s Radical Women 1914 to 1945.

The Zoom link at the Working Class Movement Library will go live on June 10: mstar.link/MalcolmHulke.

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