The days when Mary Whitehouse thought Doctor Who too distressing for the airwaves could not be more distant. Master of profanities Peter Capaldi has been unveiled as the Time Lord, and the show is now the longest-running sci-fi TV show ever made.

Philip Hinchcliffe, a producer on the series for three years when Whitehouse was president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, is not surprised. “It is a wonderful format. The idea of doing a series about a time traveller but not making him English or British or human, and then being able to change the actor, is the most wonderful formula because it enables you to be very imaginative, so it’s fun.” He says the key is to keep the standard up. Do that and “it could go on forever because it is such a fecund, fertile format for a TV show”.

The ongoing success – the collective national drama of choosing a new Doctor, the BAFTAs, the spin-offs – is why Hinchcliffe is a regular at conventions all over the world, and why his opinion on the new appointment is constantly in demand.

“[Peter’s] a great actor, and it’s probably a sort of return to a more traditional view of the Doctor,” he says of the Time Lord’s 12th incarnation. “He is 55 but probably doesn’t look 55, and recently the Doctors have become quite young so this is a slightly more traditional casting.”

Capaldi has the unpredict-ability and charisma an actor needs for the role. “I found him hilarious in The Thick Of It. He has enormous energy and he can portray that, which is again a necessary component for the Doctor. The best ones have always had that sense of power as actors.” Hinchcliffe had to produce wildcard Tom Baker, who remains the most successful to date in terms of viewing figures. Forty-four episodes had ten million viewers – despite Mary Waterhouse’s shrieks at some grizzly, noirish scenes.

Barry Letts was in charge when the BBC approached a 29-year-old Hincliffe to join after a run writing scripts for soaps and children’s drama.

He says Baker was instantly popular – as were all the early Doctors – because he was a hero who carried the story. “I think the programme took off with Tom because of his personality, for what we were doing with some of the stories – making them more appealing to adults. And also the generation who were children when it first started were just going into university.” It was the first generation of young people who had always known television. When they arrived at university, they started watching it as students. Before then, only the geeks watched television.

“They warmed to Tom’s portrayal of the character – he was a bit bohemian, he had the scarf, and I could see the appeal to that age group. That was something new that was happening with the show in the first three years I did it with Tom.”

Doctor Who has never been produced by the BBC’s children’s department. Though prior to Hinchcliffe’s arrival its audience was young. “When I took over I thought, ‘This is a very popular show, what can I do to change it?’ So I had ideas about content, and I also thought about how I could maximise the audience. “I came to the view, rightly or wrongly, that all the children who wanted to watch it would probably be watching it, so the increase would be to make the programme appeal to adults who were watching it more, so they weren’t just patronisingly watching a kids’ show with their kids.”

Before catch-up and digital, Doctor Who was event television. Hinchcliffe believes this was thanks to the atmosphere he created and because they maintained the suspense.

“Our stories were constructed and transmitted as series. At that time there was no VHS. You would only see the next episode if you sat down with it. The serials ran for four or six weeks and became an event to watch with the family.”

Hinchcliffe oversaw classic episodes with memorable baddies – an essential ingredient. He remembers Terror Of The Zygons, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and Pyramids Of Mars as highlights. Renaissance Italy provided the set for the latter, though it was filmed in North Wales, at Portmeirion. Hinchcliffe says the budgets in those days would have been the same as for a soap opera, whose cast would just be standing around and chatting, so they had to be creative. Certainly the special effects felt clunky at times. Hinchcliffe puts it down to primitive production equipment a million miles from the post-production suites Capaldi’s bosses will use.

Still he made his mark – with Whitehouse’s help – and went on to work on Taggart, Rebus and feature films such as An Awfully Big Adventure with Hugh Grant and Total Eclipse with Leonardo Di Caprio. “They say some of the stories under my tenure were more horrific or darker, but people forget there were some frightening episodes under my predecessor Barry Letts. But as is well documented my tenure coincided with the rise of power of the Listeners’ Association, and suddenly there was someone out there in the viewing public looking to highlight things which they felt were not acceptable to the general public.”

And did it lead to him moving on?

“I have read this but it was never put to me like that. I was not privy to what went on behind the scenes, so I don’t know. I think it would have been a huge pity if the BBC had caved in to that kind of pressure and moved a producer on.”

  • The Space with Philip Hinchcliffe (and Dennis Kelly), The Lighthouse, Kensington Street, Brighton, Thursday, August 22
  • Starts 8pm, £10. Visit <&bh""><&eh>