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Publishing George Orwell


Peter Davison, the fifth Dr WhoWhen actor Peter Moffett signed up to play the role of the fifth Doctor Who, following in the galaxy-striding footsteps of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, doctors one, two, three, and four respectively, this was the kind of imaginary world he entered:

Illegally using the Arc of Infinity, a species of antimatter has invaded normal space. Its dangerous and radical instability must be countered by a physical bonding with a Time Lord. President Borusa, at a meeting of the High Council, considers the deadly threat and decides whose life must be sacrificed to avert catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Omega, long imprisoned in the universe of antimatter, has established control of the Matrix. The bonding procedure has failed and Omega's imminent reversion to antimatter will cause a cataclysmic explosion. The Master desperately needs a dynamorphic generator but Omega resolves to bring about his own destruction only to dissolve into nothingness when targeted by the Ergon's matter converter.

As the fifth Doctor Who, Moffett inherited a well-established science-fictional world that had a massive and dedicated following and has spawned a labyrinthine complexity of universes, enmities, alliances and exotic characters. Intricate manoeuverings, death-defying clashes, ploys and counter-ploys emerged from a time-bending, space-invading technological maelstrom.

The fifth Doctor Who had to deal with threats familiar to his predecessors — the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Tardis's inconveniently timed electronic eccentricities — as well as innumerable new challenges, life forms and, of course, bobbing up in various disguises, his indefatigable bête noir and renegade Time Lord, the Master.

As it happened, it was not 'Peter Moffett' who became the fifth Doctor. At the start of his theatrical career, Moffett had changed his name to Davison, to avoid confusion with a namesake in the film world. Thus it was Peter Davison, not Moffett, who, following his success playing the slightly effete Tristan Farnon in the TV hit All Creatures Great and Small, became the fifth Doctor.

This was bad luck for Professor Peter Davison, whose career was as star-crossed, as important to the world of the imagination and as much a hostage to fortune as that of the fifth Doctor, but whose name is swamped in search engines by references to the actor and his famous role.

In September 1981 — a few months before Peter Davison became the fifth Doctor Who — Peter Davison, the literary scholar, accepted a commission from Tom Rosenthal, the publisher at Secker & Warburg, to 'produce the corrected editions of Orwell's nine books'.

As Davison remarked, it looked 'pretty simple' — one volume a month for £100 per volume, with a £100 bonus if he delivered on time in July 1982, which he did. The idea was to publish in the 'Orwellian' year of 1984. (Peter Davison the actor had completed three seasons and 19 episodes of Doctor Who by 1984 and had given up the role before he became typecast.)

When no books appeared, Davison was accused of not having delivered, but his proofs were then found buried in a stack of papers in Secker & Warburg's Poland Street office. In April 1986, the first three volumes were published. Davison's celebrations were soured, however, when he discovered the texts were riddled with errors. The whole edition was pulped.

By this time, with much more Orwell material available, Secker asked Davison to prepare a complete edition of Orwell's works. With the help of his wife and Orwell scholar Ian Angus, Davison started on this daunting task. With 4183 pages of typescript completed, however, Secker & Warburg succumbed to a takeover bid and the project lapsed for two years.

Then in 1986, the American publisher Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich revived Davison's project and transferred everything to New York. In late 1989 they pulled out, resumed in January 1990, abandoned Davison again in April 1992, but returned in August of that year.

By 11 November 1992, Davison had almost 8000 pages of typescript. In December 1993, Harcourt, Brace abandoned the edition for the last time.

Davison, meanwhile, worn out by the task and its false dawns and recurring frustrations, was diagnosed with a serious cardiac condition: now, following the repeated example of his publishers, life itself was preparing to abandon him. A dynamorphic generator might have saved him, but in the end a sextuple heart bypass did the trick.

Under new management, Secker & Warburg — Orwell's original publishers — with Time Lord-like control moved all the operations back to London, but further buy-outs and takeovers ensued before Davison's monumental 20-volume edition was published — by Secker & Warburg, an arm of Random House.

The Davison namesakes contributed substantially to our imaginative, intellectual and creative life. Doctor Who's problems and privations — for all their exoticism, outlandishness and sheer terror — were fictional whereas the Prof genuinely suffered for his art, and his triumph was as amazing, as just and as thoroughly deserved as any of the Doctor's. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Peter Moffett, Davison, George Orwell, Secker & Warburg, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, dalek, doctor who



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Existing comments

Dear Mr Matthews - a friend put me on to your article about the two Davisons. I am very grateful for your kind remarks: thank you. I taught at Sydney University 1960-64 and my PhD is from Sydney. It is a period much written up (but not by me!). Best wishes Peter Davison.

Peter Davison - the editor, not the actor! | 15 April 2011  

‘Dr Who?’ ….. I was looking forward to an insight into the Orwell – Davison saga not a kaleidoscopic tour of the BBC archive of worn out TV series - this landslide of verbiage is not it.

Dermott Ryder | 18 April 2011  

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