RIP Paddy Russell: paying tribute to one of Doctor Who’s greatest directors

The director of classic Who stories Pyramids Of Mars and Horror Of Fang Rock has passed away

Today we learned of the death of beloved director Paddy Russell. Born in 1928, Russell trained as an actress and worked as a stage manager before making the move to television. She worked as a production assistant for director Rudolph Cartier on Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 starring Peter Cushing, and his groundbreaking Quatermass serials. In 1963, Russell became one of the first female directors on British television. She worked on BBC soap operas Compact and The Newcomers, a number of classical adaptations including Little Women and The Moonstone, and long-running TV staples such as Z Cars and Emmerdale.

Although only a relatively small part of her long career, Russell is perhaps best known for her work on Doctor Who. She first worked on the series quite early in her directorial career, in the 1966 William Hartnell adventure The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve (or just The Massacre). An unusually bleak and serious outing, Russell was integral in drawing out a very different performance from Hartnell in his role as Doctor lookalike the Abbot of Amboise. Sadly, we can only rely on audio of this story, but those who saw it at the time have commented on the interesting visual depiction of the massacre itself.

Russell returned to the show in Jon Pertwee’s era, corralling the plasticine beasts of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs in 1974. While nobody would pretend that the monsters are a success, the story around them is a taut thriller which shows off Russell’s skill at translating character. Particularly impressive is the opening episode, sneakily entitled ‘Invasion’ to hide the identity of the monsters. 28 years before 28 Days Later, the scenes of a deserted London are brilliantly realised, a sense of unseen horror pervading every shot.

The next year, Russell worked with Tom Baker in his second season. Pyramids Of Mars is widely regarded as a classic, and Russell’s direction plays no small part in this. Whether it is the shots of giant Egyptian mummies stalking through a leafy glen or the villain’s chest exploding as he gets pumped full of lead, Pyramids is a beautiful and haunting experience.

Equally, if not more terrifying is Russell’s final work on the show, 1977’s Horror Of Fang Rock. Made under rather difficult circumstances – the production had to be moved to BBC Birmingham’s Pebble Mill studios, Tom Baker was being uncooperative – the polish of the finished episodes is a credit to Russell’s skill. The range of subtle performances once again shows off Russell’s ability to bring actors in line with her directorial vision, and she also turns the studio sets to her advantage, pairing some brilliantly considered framing with (mostly) excellent model work.

Paddy Russell’s career in television spanned four decades before she retired in the early 1980s. She lived until recently in a cottage on the Yorkshire moors and died peacefully in a care home in late October 2017.