Verity Lambert: Trail-blazing producer whose TV successes included 'Doctor Who', 'The Naked Civil Servant' and 'Minder'

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Verity Ann Lambert, film and television producer: born London 27 November 1935; producer, BBC TV 1963-74; Controller, Drama Department, Thames TV 1974-76, Director of Drama 1981-82, director 1982-85; Chief Executive, Euston Films 1979-83; Director of Production, Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment 1982-85; Director, Cinema Verity Productions 1985-2007; OBE 2002; married 1973 Colin Bucksey (marriage dissolved 1987); died London 22 November 2007.

In a medium whose early history had been dominated by men, Verity Lambert was one of those who blazed a trail for women in television. When she produced the first episode of Doctor Who, in 1963, she was the only female producer at the BBC. For more than forty years, her impact on television was enormous and wide-ranging.

There were other successful women during that period, such as Anna Home, who made a remarkable contribution to children's television, Aida Young, who produced series such as Danger Man, and Beryl Vertue, whose successes included Men Behaving Badly. But no other woman exercised such power as a producer and television executive over such a length of time and across such a variety of programmes.

After switching from the BBC to ITV, Lambert became controller of drama at Thames Television and was responsible for such ground-breaking programmes as The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Philip Mackie's adaptation of Quentin Crisp's autobiography, which won both the Prix Italia and an International Emmy.

Then, as chief executive of Euston Films, a Thames Television offshoot that produced popular series made on film for ITV, her greatest success was the comedy-drama Minder (1979-85). It was Lambert who suggested George Cole for the role of the secondhand car salesman Arthur Daley, who passed into small-screen folklore with his "nice little earners", protected by Dennis Waterman as the ex-jailbird Terry McCann. Audiences were at first unsure whether this was drama or comedy but were eventually convinced that a one-hour programme could provide both.

This led Lambert into feature films, as director of production and executive producer at Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, overseeing a mixed bag of pictures for the cinema, from Morons from Outer Space (starring Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, 1985) to Dreamchild (Dennis Potter's Alice in Wonderland fantasy, 1985) and Clockwise (with John Cleese as a punctilious headmaster, 1985).

In 1985, as independent production companies burgeoned in the wake of the launch of Channel 4, Lambert set up Cinema Verity, beginning more than 20 prolific years of making programmes, including the age-gap sitcom May to December (1989-94), that found outlets on all the major channels.

Lambert had a sharp eye for spotting a good script and could be demanding of writers. Alan Bleasdale had already made a name for himself with Boys from the Blackstuff when Channel 4 appointed her executive producer of G.B.H. (1991), Bleasdale's 10-and-a-half-hour political drama series, but she had no qualms about sitting him down and suggesting script cuts amounting to 200 pages. "All week, he sat glaring at me, getting redder and redder in the face," she recalled. "Later, he rang Peter Ansorge at Channel 4 in the middle of the night, saying, 'I'm going to kill her.' He told me later he'd really meant it."

Lambert's technique for getting the best out of writers was simple. "I am not a writer," she explained.

So I try not to tell a writer what I think is wrong. I try to ask what he or she wanted to say in a scene. Then I can say, "Well, maybe you're not saying it," or, "Maybe I am missing it for some reason." The most negative thing you can say to a writer is, "I don't like this scene but I don't know why." If I'm any good at it, it's because I believe the person who has written it has to provide the answer.

Born into an affluent Jewish family in London in 1935, Lambert – whose father was an accountant – left Roedean public school at 16 to spend a year at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to London to take a secretarial course. She landed a job as a secretary to the press officer at Granada Television, shortly before it went on the air in 1956. Although sacked after six months, Lambert was fascinated by the growing medium of television and successfully applied for a post as a shorthand typist at ABC.

She was promoted to secretary and then became a production secretary, eventually working as the director Ted Kotcheff's personal assistant on Armchair Theatre, the series of classic and contemporary plays that proved to critics that ITV could produce serious drama as well as populist entertainment.

Keen to broaden her experience of television production, Lambert went to New York in 1961 as personal assistant to an American producer, David Susskind, at Talent Associates. She then returned to ABC as a production assistant and in 1963, after Sydney Newman – the Canadian who had produced Armchair Theatre – defected to the BBC as its head of drama, he hired the 27-year-old Lambert as a producer to make a new programme for children.

Doctor Who was conceived by Newman as an educational programme, with none of what he termed "cheap-jack, bug-eyed monsters", but soon the adventures of the Time Lord (originally played by William Hartnell) began to take him to other planets. The second Doctor Who serial introduced the writer Terry Nation's creation the Daleks, made of cardboard and Morris Minor indicator lights, and determined to "Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!" Lambert and the script editor, David Whitaker, clashed with Newman as they developed the outer-space concept and introduced alien creatures, but they won the battle that saw Doctor Who evolve into a television phenomenon and, eventually, the world's longest-running sci-fi serial.

After two series, in 1965 Lambert left to produce the first eight episodes of the twice-weekly serial The Newcomers (1965), about a London family resettling in East Anglia, at a time when the BBC was trying, unsuccessfully, to compete with ITV's Coronation Street. She quickly moved on to make the swashbuckling Adam Adamant Lives! (with Gerald Harper as the Edwardian adventurer, 1966-67), Detective (dramatisations of mysteries by noted crime writers, 1968) and W. Somerset Maugham (stylish adaptations of the author's short stories, 1969-70, which won the Society of Film and Television Arts Best Drama Series award).

Lambert then switched to the ITV company LWT, producing the popular series Budgie (1971-72), starring the former pop singer Adam Faith as a lovable, small-time Soho criminal, and a hint of the type of programmes she would make later for Euston Films, as well as one-off plays including Achilles' Heel (1973), a football drama directed by Alan Clarke. After a brief return to the BBC as a freelance to produce Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), six plays about the suffragette movement, in 1974 Lambert went back to commercial television as controller of drama at Thames Television, subsequently becoming its director of drama in 1981.

Over this period, she was responsible for productions such as Trevor Griffiths's hard-hitting political series Bill Brand (1976), the innovative Rock Follies (a musical satire about a female group in the music business, 1976), Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests (1977), Rumpole of the Bailey (John Mortimer's barrister drama, 1978-79) and the controversial Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978).

In 1976, while continuing to run Thames's drama department, she also worked for its subsidiary Euston Films – which had already developed gritty, realistic drama series such as The Sweeney – before switching full-time to become its chief executive.

Among the programmes for which she acted as executive producer were The Sailor's Return (a story of racism in Victorian England, 1978), Danger UXB (about a Second World War bomb disposal squad, 1979), the Jack Rosenthal play The Knowledge (1979) and The Flame Trees of Thika (1981). Before her departure, she also oversaw the first series of Lynda La Plante's heist drama Widows (1983) and Reilly, Ace of Spies (starring Sam Neill as a First World War double agent, 1983).

Although Lambert became director of production at Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment (1982-85), she was so highly regarded that Thames appointed her to its board as a director (1982-85) and she remained in her post at Euston Films until the end of 1983. She described her three years at Thorn EMI as a "terrible, horrible time", although she did make an impression on the film industry by persuading it to join Rank Film Distribution and Channel 4 in backing a new British Screen Finance Consortium, which put public money into productions for both the cinema and television, and later became part of the new UK Film Council.

In 1985, a year before Thorn EMI was sold to the Australian media magnate Alan Bond, Lambert decided to go it alone, setting up Cinema Verity. The first result was the feature film A Cry in the Dark (starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in the story of the Australian dingo baby case, 1988). However, most of Cinema Verity's work was for television. It included the anarchic comedy Boys from the Bush (1991-92), Coasting (a comedy-drama about two brothers on the run in Blackpool, 1990), Lynda La Plante's thriller Comics (1993) and the Widows sequel She's Out (1995), Class Act (a comedy-drama starring Joanna Lumley, 1994-95) and the Second World War family saga The Cazalets (2001). One of Lambert's – and the company's –few real flops was Eldorado (1992-93), the short-lived BBC soap set on the Costa del Sol, which received a critical mauling.

Lambert also produced some programmes outside Cinema Verity, taking over on Jonathan Creek, the comedy-mystery starring Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin as unorthodox investigators into "impossible" crimes, from its second series onwards (1998-2004). Most recently, she produced another David Renwick-scripted BBC comedy-drama, Love Soup (2005, with a second series forthcoming).

Lambert won the Royal Television Society's Hall of Fame Award in 1998 and, four years later, the Bafta Alan Clarke Award for her outstanding contribution to television.

Anthony Hayward

Verity Lambert was hugely talented, highly opinionated and a lot of fun, writes Janet Street-Porter. She was consumed by her work and her life-long ambition was only to be associated with the very best – which is why she was so very disappointed that her foray into soaps, Eldorado for the BBC, didn't work out, for all sorts of reasons, mostly ones that were nothing to do with her. She leaves behind a prodigious body of work, from Doctor Who to Shoulder to Shoulder to the Naked Civil Servant, all ground-breaking in their day. No other female producer can claim to have produced such a wide range of quality popular drama over the last half-century.

We met almost 30 years ago, introduced by my then husband, the film director Frank Cvitanovich, who worked at Thames Television, where she was head of drama. We immediately hit it off – Verity loved parties, collecting Art Deco, cooking and entertaining, and our only point of difference over the years was her undying love for a whole succession of irritating dogs, including a neurotic Dalmatian which she used to carry up to the second-floor living room of my house in Clerkenwell, claiming this animal "didn't do" stairs.

Back in the 1970s I had just started presenting a series for London Weekend Television, and found the business very forbidding, full of men who bossed me around and told me what to do. Verity was my role model, with a very short fuse and a voice you didn't mess with, the product of her Roedean education, and her put-downs were legendary. She gave me bags of confidence to do my own thing and soon I moved from presenting to producing documentaries for young people, largely as a result of Verity's encouragement.

We used to go on holidays together, sometimes with her good friend the award-winning Andrew Brown in tow, and three giant egos meant that there were daily rows about where to stay and what to eat – once we changed apartments five times in a fortnight in Crete as nothing was ever up to Verity's demanding standards. She spent a lot of time at her home in the ramparts of Antibes in France, cooking delicious dinners with produce purchased in the local markets, and an appropriate inscription for her gravestone would surely be "she made the best gravy".

Verity had a wide range of talented friends, many of whom she worked with time and time again – her attention to detail and the care she took with scriptwriters was legendary. When we attended the premiere of her film A Cry in the Dark in Cannes, we were surrounded by a group of simpering middle-aged men. "The trouble is, Janet," Verity said to me, "you are wearing a 90 per cent dress that's attracting 10 per cent men." I had such hilarious times with Verity over the years, drinking and fighting to have the last word. Her 70th birthday was a glittering affair and she looked so glamorous, surrounded by writers, actors and lifelong friends.

It is fitting that she was working right up to the last few weeks of her illness. She wouldn't have wanted to be remembered any other way. She was due to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Women in Film and Television Awards next month – and the real scandal is why she wasn't given this recognition years ago. By the age of 50, she'd attained more than most of her peers will manage in their own lacklustre careers. Verity, sadly, was a one-off.