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Sarah Hellings, Director: remembers Dr Who

24JulSarah Hellings, Director: remembers Dr Who

Enterprise Screen Director reveals insight into Dr Who productions of the past.

Enterprise Screen company (and TV Drama) Director, Sarah Hellings has had a long and varied career in film and television and has worked in the broadcast industry for over 35 years. Her Directing credits range from the fun and fabulous Blue Peter and Dr Who to large-scale, big-budget drama productions: Midsomer Murders, Taggart, Howards Way and a host of other well established television projects.

As a founding member of Enterprise Screen, she is a key consultant across all areas of production and brings invaluable experience, creativity and technical guidance for our projects.

Sarah will be publishing a selection of articles on her experiences working with some of the most iconic British TV shows of the past 35 years- the production processes, the special effects, the actors and of course, the catering (see our recent articles)! Starting with her legendary Dr Who episode- The Mark of the Rani- with the 6th Doctor, Colin Baker and guest starring Kate OMarra, Sarah is happy to give Enterprise Screen audiences an insight to her career in broadcasting.

The Mark Of Rani- Directors Notes

When I was asked to do The Mark of the Rani and I was sent the script, I was a bit sad that I didnt get to have a go with the Daleks, but we still managed to have a lot of fun.

Most of the episode was shot at Ironbridge Gorge open air museum in Shropshire: this was, unusually for Dr Who at the time, a period piece which involved the challenging subject-matter of 19th century miners. The storyline was characteristically complex but also grounded in some historical reality- this episode brought audiences the grim reality of mining and the industrial thirst for coal and combining it with the science-fiction of today-well the 1980s today!

Unfortunately for these miners, Kate O Mara, disguised as an old hag, had wrestled control of their bath house (with alien skills) and would systematically render them unconscious in order to extract a part of their brain to put to better use on her home planet. Miners brains were the must-have accessory on Rani.

For the period part of the story, it made sense to have Kate in period rags but in her scientific laboratory, of course, she was dressed for the work. She wore a skin-tight leather suit painted with jazzy gold designs. Her very spacey and spacious lab was circular and furnished with plastic bell jars containing superb, baby-dinosaur-type monsters. The production designer knew the Rani and their thirst for tasteful accessorising! I did get to take a couple home- how I wish I still had them now! The whole thing was wonderfully preposterous, but, as with all Dr Who, the work was taken extremely seriously by all of the cast and crew.

Working with Mr Baker was a joy- he understood the Doctor perfectly but sometimes had to have his nemesis explained-particularly when they were female! As a Doctor, he was inspired. His strong voice was enhanced by the strength of the character.

At one point we had to blow up a forest: this rapidly became three trees- over and over again. We had a challenge building a murderous runaway coal truck on rails, racing it downhill with a nervous Gawn Grainger inside and stopping it just in time before it tipped down the pit-head (this pit-head was actually only about a couple of feet deep, and I think we dug the camera in a bit to create a greater sense of depth). Steadicam was still quite a new technique in shooting then: we used it a lot on this story: it was very heavy, quite difficult to set up (and very expensive, so I had to make economies elsewhere). We had a dedicated cameraman for it: poor chap was simply summoned by shouting Muscles! It wasnt much liked by directors as the only viewfinder was a tiny rectangle at hip-height on the rig: you had to run alongside to keep up with it and the picture resembled nothing so much as a wartime green and black radar screen. (It could have started life like that: the little gun cameras we used for shooting multiple angles on big stunts were known as gun cameras from their wartime position behind the guns on the wings of fighter planes). Now steadicam is one of the first tools a director likes to get out: on tight schedules and with a good operator it wraps up an awful lot of action very quickly -.

Directing an iconic show like Dr Who was a lot of fun: much of the reward in it was knowing that it was going to give pleasure to so many millions of people. We thought nothing of an audience of 12 million-. but being incredibly popular could also have its downside.

More to follow.

By Sarah Hellings, Enterprise Screen Director

You can view some of the episode on Youtube (we cannot verify source)

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