I’m just a little bit in love with Der Golem, from 1920. The only complete extant film of the three made by Paul Wegener (the original Golem from 1915 and – gawd help us – the short 1917 comedy The Golem And The Dancing Girl are sadly lost), it is a beautiful film. The set design is like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else. The Golem (played by Wegener himself) is a remarkable piece of work, especially in close-up – all bared teeth and eyes glowing. Stop the film at any point and you have a beautifully composed frame, packed with detail. I don’t think there’s a conventional looking shot in the whole thing. It’s a fantastic film. It’s one of the finest of the silent era – eerie, haunting and utterly unique. See for yourself. Click any of the frames for an enlargement. Believe me, they’re worth it.
So – 1996. TV Movie done, and we all waited for the series. And waited. And waited. Eventually, we gave up hope and Paul McGann became the great lost Doctor. Barely an hour of screen time. It just wasn’t enough. He deserved so much more.
I am the man that gives monsters nightmares. The Daleks call me the Bringer of Darkness. I am the Eighth Man Bound. I am the Champion of Life and Time. I’m the guy with two hearts. I make History better. I am the Doctor.
Someone else who deserved so much more was Virgin Publishing. After several years of sterling service and two highly successful series of Doctor Who books the BBC suddenly withdrew their license. The book ranges were taken in-house, becoming the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the Past Doctor Adventures, respectively. “The Well Mannered War” by Gareth Roberts became the final Missing Adventure; Lance Parkin’s “The Dying Days” was the last New Adventure to feature the Doctor. The Eighth Doctor appeared only once for Virgin. In the final pages he was ambushed by Bernice Summerfield, who claimed that she’d never be able to forgive herself if she didn’t do a certain something at least once. The reader is invited to draw their own conclusions.
Having got that out of her system Bernice stepped up to take charge of the New Adventures. Using characters and concepts created specifically within the range and focussing on everyone’s favourite good-time, party-loving, slightly damaged archaeologist, the books continued for quite some time – eventually grinding to an apocalyptic halt some twenty-or-so novels later.
I loved them. Sometimes, I loved them more than I loved the New Adventures which actually featured the Doctor. The withdrawal of BBC copyrights forced the writers into producing some dazzlingly good books and Bernice proved herself to be more than capable of holding the limelight by herself. There was something about the character that just refused to lie down. In 1998 her first solo novel “Oh No It Isn’t” – a romp through the wild and wonderful world of pantomime – became the first audio play to be released by the fledgling production company Big Finish. A further Benny adaptation (“Beyond The Sun”) followed, before… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What was a slightly jaded and disappointed fanboy to make of the new BBC Books? As it turned out, not a great deal. Things started bizarrely for the Eighth Doctor, as Uncle Terrance kicked things off with “The Eight Doctors”.
It’s a bizarre book, it really is. An amnesiac Eighth Doctor (whose debut television adventure it’s obvious Terrance really hated with a passion) takes a wander through his own back pages. In chronological order, and stopping off at stories that either Terrance had a major hand in, or were written by people he worked closely with. Hence, “The Daemons” unexpectedly gains a sixth episode, “State of Decay” a fifth. Manfully Terrance attempts to sort out the mess of “The Trial of a Time Lord” and in the process leaves us with the winning image of a Sixth Doctor so egotistical that unless he’s actually being referred to directly, he just doesn’t bother listening.
“The Eight Doctors” had another job to do, introducing the teeth-achingly right on Sam as the new companion. There are three things about Doctor Who that I utterly loathe, and Sam’s all three of them. The anti-companion, the most aggravating character in Doctor Who history, she first appears in a drug-related plot at Totters Lane, which features yoof dialogue so archaic I expect someone to turn up and say “don’t worry. I speak jive” and interpret for everyone. Sam would pollute the range for a long time to come, sad to say.
Things improved almost immediately with Orman and Blum’s “Vampire Science”, featuring someone who was meant to be Grace Holloway but wasn’t, a San Francisco setting and an Eighth Doctor so attractive to kittens that he ends up festooned with them at one point. It even found time to throw in a reference to “Forever Knight”. All too often though, the range wandered all over the shop and despite the introduction of serial fantasist Fitz as a companion and some good work here and there – I gave up. “The Burning” was supposed to be a clear-the-decks, reset everything and let new readers jump on book but it proved to be the point at which I jumped off. I’ve never been back, so I have no idea what happened after that although I’m given to believe at least one human Tardis is involved.
Over in the PDAs things started alarmingly with a Day/Topping Third Doctor pastiche so alarmingly accurate I feared for the sanity of the authors. It remains one of the few Doctor Who novels for me that completely captures Pertwee on the page – frighteningly so. Sadly, my interest in this range began to wane as well and after years of dedicated service I fell off that particular wagon too. Sometimes I wonder what I missed. But not often.
Remember that little company who produced those Bernice audio adventures? One to watch, they were. Or at least, listen to. In 1999, they appeared again. They’d managed to achieve the impossible. They had the rights to produce full cast Doctor Who audio adventures featuring past Doctors and companions. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were signed up from the beginning, which meant that a multi-Doctor story kicked things off in fine style. Nick Briggs used the traditional four episode structure to showcase his three Doctors in single episode stories before having everyone pile in (literally) in the final episode and the warmth invoked from a sudden re-acquaintance with friends thought long gone got them off to a cracking start.
One particular Doctor has benefitted remarkably from his association with Big Finish. His crisis-ridden years on television really didn’t give Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor a proper crack at things and it was something BF were determined to address. They did (and continue to do) him proud. The Big Finish version of the Sixth Doctor is charming, adventurous, urbane, witty, swashbuckling, sensitive, gentle, wistful, generous and kind. Prone to bluster occasionally, but always totally, wonderfully Doctorish in all the best ways – Colin Baker now frequently tops lists of favourite Doctors amongst those of us who’ve spent the last fourteen years or so in his welcome company. The rehabilitation of the Sixth Doctor is surely one of Big Finish’s two greatest gifts to Doctor Who.
The other – well, it wasn’t long before Paul McGann popped up to join in. I remember the excitement terribly well. “Storm Warning” suffered in its first episode from the aggravating problems of having a Doctor talking to himself and explaining the plot to us but as soon as India Fisher’s Elizabethan Adventuress Charlotte Pollard (capitals absolutely deliberate) turned up we were off and running.
Big Finish has a knack of producing new companions you take to your heart instantly, none more so than for the Sixth and Eighth Doctors. Septugenarian Evelyn Smythe kept the Sixth Doctor well and truly in his place and remains one of my all time favourite characters in Doctor Who. Most of the Eighth Doctor’s friends aren’t far behind her. Although Charlie exhibited distinct bunny-boiling tendencies as time went on India Fisher was never less than sparkling, and it’s obvious that Big Finish can’t quite bear to let her go. Quite right too. C’Rizz was a bit of a misstep – no harm to Conrad Westmass but the poor soul didn’t have any sort of character he could latch onto in order to produce a memorable companion. Besides which he was soon overshadowed by the introduction of the divine, the devastating, the delectable Lucie Miller.
Conceived absolutely deliberately – I’m told – as a gobby Northern response to developments in television Doctor Who, Lucie Miller is up with the very greatest. Sheridan Smith plays her to the absolute hilt and her eventual departure from the series is one of Big Finish’s most emotionally affecting moments. Equally adept at the silly and the serious stuff, Lucie is terrific. I love her. I miss her and I hope she’ll be back. Sometime. No other companion has ever – ever attempted to distract a Dalek by flashing their chest at them. No other companion would dare.
There’s not really space here to do Big Finish justice. Their output is incredible – hundreds of plays, with a remarkably high success rate. Spin off series all over the place. Releases for a plethora of other television series. They’ve enriched my days immeasurably and if I’ve fallen behind it’s entirely my fault, not theirs. I’ve sometimes felt that it’s impossible for one person to keep up with everything they do, although I do try. There’s just so damn much of it. The only reason I’ve not mentioned Peter and Sylvester here is that developments for the Fifth and Seventh Doctor haven’t been as striking as for Colin and Paul. All the Doctors have had great stories to play with. They’ve all had some stinkers too. In that, Big Finish replicate the parent series precisely. After years of refusing, Tom Baker joined the party recently and he seems to be having a ball. We are too.
I fight – frequently – with friends who refuse to listen to any of the audio plays on the grounds that if they’re not on tv, they “don’t count”. I suspect very strongly that they get great pleasure in telling me this because they know how much it annoys me. My version of the Doctor Who universe features an Eighth Doctor who’s been in the role for thirteen years, has appeared in multiple wonderful adventures and travelled with companions I love equally as much as the ones from the television show. A Sixth Doctor who has appeared in some of the most dazzlingly audacious stories I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Jago and Litefoot have romped through multiple series of adventures. Romana II has been Madame President of Gallifrey to me for years. Ace has grown up considerably and now acts as an almost mentor figure to young Hex, ably played by Philip Olivier. Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa has grown considerably more of a spine than she ever had on television and now fires off sparks like a catherine wheel at least three times a year with the reunited season 20 team of Davison, Fielding, and Strickson. It’s an enormously rich universe they’ve created and terribly easy to get lost in. I do so, frequently.
And then. And then…
One day in 2003, the announcement came. We’d gone through years of “ooh, it’s coming back, and Alan Davies is playing him!” “Ooh, it’s coming back and John Cleese is playing him!”. Novelty casting and repeated barbed jabs at the old series had worn us out. Suddenly – and it took a while to believe it – it was happening. The Ninth Doctor was on the way, and Christopher Eccleston was playing him. That put a stop to the stunt casting rumours, once and for all. The Doctor is an actor’s role once again as opposed to the subject of a thousand “wouldn’t be funny if so-and-so were to play him?” newspaper pieces. Fandom decided to disgust me one more time, though. The casting of Billie Piper was greeted with howls of anger. Abuse, chauvinism, sexism and filth spewed forth just because a pop singer had been cast as the companion. I have my problems with Rose Tyler. Goodness, I have my problems with Rose Tyler. I have none whatsoever with Billie Piper – a fine actress who didn’t deserve any of this. Russell T Davies has said he was ashamed of fandom for their reaction to Billie’s casting. So am I. It was unforgiveable and was only surpassed by the reaction to Catherine Tate’s casting several years later. We really are nasty pieces of work sometimes. I wish we could behave better, or at least with more dignity. However…
In March 2005 our best friend came back. He hasn’t been away for too long since. Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson grabbed that battle weary Time Lord by the scruff of the neck and kicked him back into life. The night that “Rose” aired was unforgettable. It had happened. Doctor Who was back, and nobody could stop it. Except, perhaps, Christopher Eccleston, who quit the part after just one series. The announcement came three days after “Rose” aired. Once again it looked like disaster was upon us. Actorly restlessness, disgust at the way other members of the crew were being treated, distaste at the way the first shooting block had gone? Who knows? All I do know is that he left behind a year of remarkable work and a portrayal of a Doctor that was up there with the finest. I’d rather have a year of a good man giving his best than several years of inconsistent performances. Christopher Eccleston, Russell, Julie, Phil , Billie et al put Doctor Who back where it belonged, at the heart of family viewing and I can never thank them enough.
Far far too soon Chris was gone, to be succeeded by that grinning chap from the billboard on Slateford Road. David Tennant arrived on Christmas Day and was an instant, enormous success. Whether you’re a fan of the Tenth Doctor or not, I find it hard to deny that almost immediately David became possibly the most popular Doctor there’s ever been. Certainly it’s between him, Tom Baker and possibly Matt Smith. It might just be that because Russell T Davies is a master publicist, David was absolutely everywhere from 2006 through to 2010.
Now, this is all very well if you like the Tenth Doctor. I had problems, though. The Tenth Doctor aggravated the living daylights out of me. The moments of “I’m crazy me!!!” wackiness, the I’m-such-a-lonely-god schtick that Russell seemed to favour. Most of all though – and I’ve gone on about this at length in the past because it aggravates me so much – suddenly the Doctor / Rose relationship began to cloy. Pretty much from the opening moments of “New Earth”, and it never got any better.
I know the overarching theme of series 2 was that the Doctor and Rose were having so much fun together that they became overconfident, made mistakes and received a massive punishment by the end of the year. Unfortunately, that punishment was for the two of them to be separated for-evah, and it was something I was screaming for since those first moments in New New York. I remember shouting very rude words at the screen during “The Impossible Planet” when Rose and The Doctor had their little “You’d have to get a mortgage”. “Oh, stop it. Stop, I’m dying here” exchange. When the Tenth Doctor got smacked in the face in “The Idiots Lantern” I cheered, and then was astonished to discover our hero was honestly prepared to let countless others suffer in the same story, only kicking into high gear when something nasty happened to Rose. It felt wrong and it got wronger. The “Ghostbusters” moment in “Army of Ghosts” is a nadir. If Doctor Who never gets any more teeth-clenchingly embarrassing than that, I’ll be a very happy chap indeed.
Then… series 3, and The Doctor became even more of an arse. His awful, cavalier treatment of Martha Jones left me – at times – really hating my favourite television character, and it wasn’t pleasant. The Doctor/Donna (no, we’re not married) nonsense in series 4 made things even worse and it reached a high/low point when Rose returned and was rewarded with her own personal Tenth Doctor shaped sex toy at the end of a series that she wasn’t even supposed to be in. By the time “The End of Time” rolled round I couldn’t wait to be shot of the bugger.
That said, though – some of the stories the Tenth Doctor was given…. well, they really are quite superb. “School Reunion”, with Anthony Head delivering a masterclass in just how to do Doctor Who Villainous Acting (that swimming pool scene, with Head walking round Tennant, sizing him up like he’s absolutely nothing). The return of Sarah-Jane Smith. Once we got past the awful Doctor/Rose exchange, the rest of “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit” was fantastically dark and nasty. “Love & Monsters” – a story like no other, and one written specifically as a love-letter aimed at the heart of fandom – was beautifully sweet and loving and terribly moving to boot. “Gridlock”‘s 2000ad inspired antics were merely a taster before the second half of series 3 barely put a foot wrong, with “Human Nature / The Family of Blood”, “Blink” and the “Utopia” trilogy all superb. Series 4 is crammed with good stuff too – “Partners in Crime” was fun, and sets up a remarkably nasty gag later in the season. “Midnight” still takes the breath away, as does “Turn Left”. “The Next Doctor” has a breathless, headlong rush to it that I find most appealing, with David Morrisey proving to be one of the best guest turns Doctor Who ever had. “The Waters of Mars” proved to be a one last terrific hurrah for The Tenth Doctor as, unleashed from the restraining influence of his companions he went ever so slightly mad – before being brought up short by a single, shocking action on the part of Lindsey Duncan’s character. Nearly 50 years in and Doctor Who could still make me sit up and go “hang on. What have they just done???!!!”
Over on CBBC, something wonderful was happening. Following her glorious reintroduction in “School Reunion”, Lis Sladen became a hero all over again, to an all new generation of children. Of all ages, because “The Sarah Jane Adventures” held me spellbound for four and a half glorious seasons. The Doctor always referred to her as “my Sarah-Jane”. She was “our Sarah-Jane” as well and Lis Sladen’s sudden, shocking death midway before she’d finished series 5 hurt more deeply than anything connected with Doctor Who had ever done. It really – honestly – felt like I’d lost a member of the family. Lis Sladen doesn’t die. It just doesn’t happen, it’s so unlikely it doesn’t even enter your frame of reference. Ditto Nick Courtney, Caroline John, Barry Letts and so many, many others. They should all be here to share the happiness of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. Without them, we wouldn’t be here to celebrate. These celebrations are for them as much as us. We love them, we miss them, we cherish them. Their legacy lives on forever.
As The Tenth Doctor took one last valedictory trot through his back-pages (and incidentally sealed my love for Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins in one short scene that brings a lump to the throat even thinking about it) – regeneration time was imminent. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I was ready for something different. Murray Gold’s standard Tenth Doctor swelling choral harmonies suddenly stopped short to be replaced by a skanking electric guitar motif and Matt Smith exploded into my life, into the series, into my heart.
A few months later he crash-landed in a young girl’s back garden. From the moment The Eleventh Doctor stuck his soaking wet bonce out of the Tardis doors and brightly asked, “can I have an apple?” I was sold. By the time he’d gathered his support team of The Legs, The Nose and Mrs Robinson around him, it was clear to me that Steven Moffat was making Doctor Who entirely the way I’d always wanted it to be, the way it always was in my head. The Eleventh Doctor lives in a remarkable limbo, half way between Science and Phantasmagoria, and that’s just where I want him to be. Series 5 is my single favourite run of Doctor Who stories ever. Before too long Matt Smith became my favourite Doctor.
All of which is strange, because on paper there’s no discernible difference between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. It’s all in what Matt does with it. He’s utterly unpredictable and that gawky giraffes body which he doesn’t seem altogether in control of is a great asset. Even more of an asset is that face. The oldest, kindest, saddest eyes, looking out of a young man’s face. There are so many Eleventh Doctor moments that I can hear David Tennant saying – “Look how COOL this stuff is!” “I wear a Fez now. Fezzes are cool”. The Pandorica Speech in particular. The sequence in “A Good Man Goes To War” where the Doctor experiences fury for the first time. It’s the twist Matt puts on it that makes it fly. Almost as much as Troughton, it’s the performance that sells it. I will miss him, more than I can say. His time on Who was my personal golden age. I’m just glad I was able to recognise it while it was happening.
Back in reality, strange things were happening. Remember the girl from the pub on the night of the TV Movie? I fell head over heels in love with her instantly, then spent forever dancing around her like a demented pigeon. The feelings we had for each other grew ever stronger and by the time The Eleventh Doctor popped into view we were very much an item.
Unfortunately a lifelong battle with a crippling combination of anxiety and depression was taking its toll. I struggle more or less every day with this. I’ve learnt that it’s not something to be cured, but something to be managed. It blights my life, makes me withdraw from the world and makes me say and do things I’m sometimes not proud of. On the night that “Vincent and the Doctor” aired, Luisa was sitting next to me on the sofa. There’s a scene where Vincent Van Gogh has been struck down suddenly with another violent bout of depression. Hunched on his pallet, he tries to shut out the world. The Eleventh Doctor tries to jolly him out of it, suggesting all he needs is to get up and about to shake the mood. Tony Curran lashes out, screaming his hurt, then turns to the wall, leaving the Eleventh Doctor defeated and for possibly the first time in his lives, unable to help. At that moment Luisa leaned over to me and took my hand. Gently she whispered, “I understand, now”. With infinite understanding, kindness and empathy, Doctor Who made clear to her exactly what I was going through and it did in a way that I could never ever express. I will be grateful to it for the rest of my life.
Enough of this heady emotion. Series 6 confused and bewildered fandom with a plot that you actually had to think about and we all turned into Harry Hill’s older brother, taking to the internet to cry “If it’s too hard, I can’t understand it”. It wasn’t, it isn’t, and Series 6 is magnificently rich television, repaying your dedication in any number of ways as it careers through some of the finest episodes in Doctor Who’s history. “The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” gets better everytime I watch. I know at least one person who loathes “The Doctor’s Wife” but that person isn’t me, who loves it dearly. “A Good Man Goes To War” comes close to being the rompiest romp wot’s ever been romped, while still managing to deliver nasty shocks when you least expect them. “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” are both extraordinary in so many different ways – the former with Karen Gillan’s natural exuberance giving way slowly to a lifetime of sorrow and loneliness expressed in a few short scenes; the latter being possibly the best-ever directed Doctor Who story. Gita’s extraordinary moment of “Go away – I don’t want you to see me lose my faith” is such a great, take-your-breath-away moment that it makes me well up just thinking about it.
I found a disassembled quadricycle in the garage.
I don’t think you did.
Oh! I invented the quadricycle.
Series 7, I’ve yet to watch again since it first aired. It’s always the second screening that kicks things into place for me and there’s been so much going on this year that I haven’t had the chance. On initial viewing it was the Karen Gillan / Arthur Darvill half of the season that stuck in the head much more than the Impossible Girl shenanigans of the second half – despite the fact that Jenna Coleman made an instant impression on me to the point where I’m becoming dangerously obsessed with Clara. As with every series of Doctor Who, the joy is rewatching, reappraising, being surprised at the bits you’ve missed, loving the bits you did get, making connections, losing yourself in yet another part of the story that never ends. I can’t wait to get started, but there are other things to do first.
In four days time it’ll be the 23rd of November, 2013. Fifty years ago William Hartnell stumbled through a BBC studio fog and into the psyche of the British viewing public. Before too much longer we’ll be saying goodbye to Matt Smith and hello to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. Things are changing again, as they always must. For now – it’s a time to celebrate. It’ll be even more of a celebration for me, because Luisa and I are getting married on that day. We finally stopped dancing around each other, and now we’re about to take those steps into a future together which I think neither of us ever quite thought would happen. It’s the single most important thing in my life. Finally admitting to her how I felt was the single best thing I’ve ever done.
One last thing. Last week, the BBC continued their promotional push towards the 50th anniversary with a special mini-episode of Doctor Who. “Night of the Doctor” begins as so many other stories have, with a scared human in a dangerous situation. Screaming at the communications console to stop talking about Doctors, she is suddenly interrupted by a voice from behind her. “I’m a Doctor”, says Paul McGann. “But probably not the one you were expecting.” I was sitting at my desk at work, watching at lunchtime. I burst into tears, much to my astonishment, and the bewilderment of my workmates. Astonishingly, impossibly, the BBC had pulled off the surprise of a lifetime. I never knew. Never expected. They brought the Eighth Doctor back to us and for a few short moments there was magic in the air.
But here’s the thing, the one last thing. I met Luisa in that pub in 1996, entirely because we’d both decided – completely independently – to watch the Doctor Who TV Movie in the company of like-minded people. It was entirely down to Paul McGann’s Doctor that we met, grew to like each other, fell in love. Now – the week before we’re due to get married – here he was again. Back playing the Doctor at the most perfect time he could possibly have chosen. There’s something so beautiful, so poetic about that, it quite stops me in my tracks. Walter Dunlop and Luisa Rampin. I’m about to become Walter Rampin. That’s not how it works. Yeah, it so is.
Flippancy aside – I hope I’ve managed to make a stab at what a life with Doctor Who has done for me, done to me, meant to me. It has brought me some of the deepest, most lasting friendships I’ve ever had. It brought me and my wife together. It means the world to me but I hope I never forget that this exuberant, silly, strange, occasionally demented, frequently quite daft and almost always very odd indeed series is there – firstly and most importantly - so that we can all have fun. Lots of it, and in many different ways. I love Doctor Who. Happy Birthday, old chap.
Doctor Who disappeared off our screens in 1989. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but a voiceover. “Come on Ace – we’ve got work to do”, said a cheerily optimistic 7th Doctor, and indeed they had. Not on television, though.
Just Who is Who… on Doctor Who???!!
Over in the brave new world of satellite television – great things were afoot. Squarials festooned every wall. Well, one or two, including ours, following a sustained period of pester-power and wails of “but I’ll pay for it!” from me. Goodness, how I wanted BSB in my life.
In 1990, I was a 20 year old hairy person. British heavy metal was exerting a deep and altogether healthy influence on me. It still does, because – much like everything I love – it has a very highly developed sense of just how ridiculous it can be and cheerfully accepts it. It’s also highly tribal – heavy metal fans tend to be very aware of how they’re perceived by the rest of the world, cheerily blow raspberries at it and just get on with having fun. When I was 20 I needed that. When my Squarial was first connected and started receiving pictures the first thing that came through was Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” video. This seemed like an omen, a good one. BSB didn’t last but they lasted just long enough to get to one remarkable weekend in September 1990. For two entire days the schedules on the Galaxy Channel were cleared, showing nothing but Doctor Who. Even now that takes my breath away. A remarkable act of faith on the part of the station and one which enabled me to get my first viewing of several Hartnell and Troughton stories which the BBC hadn’t released yet. The murky world of video trading was still a couple of years off for me. I woke up that Saturday morning, resolved to watch EVERYTHING. Even the serials I’d already seen. I lasted until part 3 of An Unearthly Child before I had to go for a walk.
Came back just in time for the first of the unseen treasures. “The Edge of Destruction” started, with the second episode accidentally shown first. It took a good five minutes before I noticed. The rest of the weekend was composed of equal parts bliss, boredom and embarrassment. Bliss – my first sighting of what were then the only two surviving installments of Troughton’s Yeti serials, billed as “The Yeti Rarities”. As someone pointed out drily, the missing ten episodes were considerably rarer. Boredom – lots of filler features designed to illustrate elements of Doctor Who – but using clips from the stories cleared for tx that weekend. I grew heartily sick of certain sequences as they cropped up over and over again during those 48 hours. Embarrassment – the quizzes, the attempt to make Peter Purves join the ranks of companions who screamed, the bizarre experiment to see if members of the general public would recognise what a sink plunger was if waggled about in front of the camera suggestively. I was hugely grateful to BSB, though. Twelve serials shown over a weekend, with no ad breaks? That was the way to do it, and I loved them for it.
A Battle-Weary Time Lord, languishing in the backwaters of popularity
Meanwhile… Doctor Who steadfastly refused to appear on BBC1. Statements came and went which meant very little. Terry Nation and Gerry Davis popped up with a proposal for a new series. DWB claimed it was entirely JN-T’s fault and mounted a witch hunt which – to my eternal shame – I happily joined in with, not knowing any better. The fan press was hysterically anti-JN-T back then. The internet was yet to be invented and the keyboard warriors had to have some outlet. I found an issue of DWB recently which featured a letter complaining about JN-T’s connections with BBC Worldwide – “having this man in charge of the video releases is akin to putting Myra Hindley in charge of a children’s home”, they said – unaware of just how awful they sounded. It makes me shudder just typing it.
On the other hand, they were comprehensively first with the news that “Tomb of the Cybermen” had been returned. The grail – or one of them.
Lost television is fascinating. What might have been, ifs, ands and buts. Was it rubbish? Was it the greatest thing ever screened? Nobody knows until it comes back. The lost episodes of Doctor Who in particular exercise a remarkable hold on the imagination, much to the frustration of those who want to know about other programmes that may or may not have been found. Any new discovery is greeted with cries of “Any Doctor Who”? Even to a died in the wool fanboy like me, it gets a bit wearing. I can’t pretend that it’s not terribly exciting when something turns up, though. In 1992, an entire serial came back. Not just any serial, either. “Tomb of the Cybermen”, one of the “classics”. Younger fans would sit at the feet of the old ones and listen in awe as they recounted the story of how Toberman battled the Cyberleader, how the Cybermen coming out of their Tombs was the greatest bit of television ever, how… well, you know. It’s easy to talk something up when you haven’t any fear of being contradicted. Now we’d all get the chance to find out for ourselves.
When May 1992 came round, I steeled myself to watch. It was – no two ways about it – magical. It always is, when something’s been found and you settle down to view something you thought you’d never have the chance to.
“Tomb” is flawed. Very flawed in places. Jamie attempts to kid us on that the door to the Tomb is too heavy to open, despite his foot holding it in place being clearly visible. The Toberman / Cyberleader fight features wires and a very obvious dummy Cyberleader. When the Cyberleader is revealed for the first time he’s squatting like Frank Hovis in “Absolutely”. The Cybermen salute like Gumbies. But… the regulars are in wonderful form (Pat leading the other two backwards into the first scene with the guest cast is merely the start of one of his greatest Who performances). The George Roubicek / Clive Merrison double act is sweet – doling out Space Anoraks and trying to keep Cyril Shaps on the right side of hysteria, and responding to Victoria’s pained “Oh, who’d be a woman?” with a sarky “How would you know?”
As with the best in Doctor Who, the concepts take root. The Cybermen setting traps intriguing enough to draw in the most intelligent of the human race and then harvesting them for their own use is a chilling concept, and I love the way Pat hovers around the edges of scenes, letting everyone damn themselves. There’s one shot in particular where Kaftan’s about to trap Victoria, and you can see Pat in the background, just standing. Watching. To this day I haven’t worked out if he’s just waiting for his cue, or whether it’s a genuine scripted bit of business involving the Doctor manipulating everyone to his own ends, including his companions. He wasn’t immune to it in the story immediately prior, after all – using Jamie to trip up the Daleks and bring about “The Final End”.
Years later, “Tomb” still has an aura about it. At least, it does for me. Anything falls apart if you watch it often enough and we did. I don’t think there’s any Doctor Who story I know better, but it still carries a certain cachet that others didn’t. At least, until recently, when “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” reappeared. You can’t beat a bit of new Troughton.
That was the past. Doctor Who did have a remarkably rosy future ahead of it. Not on tv, though. Virgin Publishing were about to unleash the first of the New Adventures upon us, with stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen”. Initially, they tried far too hard. A linked series of books seemed a good way to go, but John Peel’s “Timewyrm : Genesys” tried far too hard to be “adult”. It succeeded in the same way as early “Torchwood” is adult – lots of gratuitous sex. Lots of gratuitous talking about sex. Lots of swearing. Nakedness. Bare breasts. It was all very unedifying, but thankfully Uncle Terrance came galloping over the hill and put things right. Ish. The second book was much more what we thought the series was going to be, with the Seventh Doctor battling returning villains in a sort of sequel to a television serial. Even Terrance succumbed slightly though, with the revelation that the Doctor liked ‘em “blonde and bouncy”. Deary dear.
Things settled down a bit, although the swearing became a problem. It reached something of a peak with the legendary moment in “Iceberg” which I won’t repeat here. This is a polite blog and I won’t sully your ears. Besides which, it’s a very very stupid line. In the end the NA’s compromised with “Cruk”, which is about as useful as “Drokk” in 2000ad. You know what it actually means but it somehow sneaks past the censors.
Anyroad, I was a faithful little fanboy. I read every one of them, from first to last. Some were easier than others. Indeed, some left so little impact that I couldn’t tell you even now what they were about, much less what I was doing or where I was when I read them. Sometimes it was a pleasure. Sometimes it was a duty. At their best they joyously pushed boundaries while staying on the right side of gratuitous. Sometimes they featured companions undergoing a trepanning for reasons which appropriately enough, I completely forget. They kept the flame burning, and they (mostly) did it well. Unfortunately, Ace proved to be something of a problem. In an attempt to do something different with the character she was bent and twisted into shapes that I’m sure Andrew Cartmel and his team of original writers hadn’t been expecting. Her virtues became loose, her clothing became tighter, she became a hardened space soldier (which suited David A MacIntee, with his loving descriptions of military hardware). She was also terribly, terribly boring. Something clearly had to be done. Thankfully, moves were afoot.
New companions were created. Some were more successful than others. Chris and Roz didn’t seem to have much life to them (although Chris’s routine involving a small grinning penguin and a bucket of snow, recreating an old W.C Fields routine in “Sky Pirates!” was a bit of a favourite). “Love and War” introduced Paul Cornell’s most enduring contribution to Doctor Who, as Bernice Summerfield first entered my life in a book which – thanks to an unfortunate cover – fandom instantly joyously dubbed “Attack of the Bollock Monsters”. Bernice endures. She’s still out there, sporadically appearing in print and played by Lisa Bowerman in a series of audio adventures which has lasted well over a decade. More of them later.
Eventually, editor Peter Darvill-Evans admitted defeat and caved in to increasing howls of “what about the old Doctors?” I quite understand his reluctance. Doctor Who should always be about pushing forward. If it looks back, it stagnates. The best thing it can do is invent, invent, invent. Unfortunately – and I count myself well and truly in this camp, but not all the time – a proportion of the readership didn’t want new. They wanted old – specifically books that read like they were stories off the telly. Reluctantly, grudgingly, the Missing Adventures were born and some of the regular NA writers joyously jumped ranges. Gary Russell, Gareth Roberts, Christopher Bulis and others seemed much more comfortable there, carving niches for themselves. Gareth’s recreations of Tom and Lalla’s season 17 rapport in particular were uncanny – cups of tea carried about in the pocket and all.
The thing about the MAs – and later the BBC Past Doctor Adventures – an awful lot of people wanted them to be nothing more than Chicken Soup. A comforting read, something to reassure you and not challenge you too much. Something to remind you of good times and favourite characters. Didn’t always pan out that way. Fans of Dodo Chaplet – and yes, there are those out there who might qualify – were well advised to stay well away, as the horrendous fates she kept on meeting became something of a running joke.
Me? I plugged along with them both. The bit of my brain that thinks it’s intelligent read some of the more opaque NAs, scratching a mental chin and going “hm”. The bit of my brain that likes to join up dots pounced on some of the MAs with their love of filling in past bits of continuity. There were some wonderful books. There were some truly terrible ones. They were there, though. There wasn’t much else, then, and it seemed the way forward, it really did. How could we know what was waiting around the corner? A very very long corner as it turned out, and thinking back I remain immensely grateful to Darvill-Evans, Rebecca Levene and all who contributed. The future of the television series was shaped here – several writers became key contributors to the programme when it came back. One in particular – a particular tall, welsh gentleman who contributed a little number set on a housing estate quite late in the run. From little acorns, and that.
While the future was bold and experimental / backwards looking and defiantly retro in print, what were the BBC up to? A kagoule on a stand presenting clips in a Brummie Accent, that’s what. “Resistance is Useless” was the apotheosis of the “phew, aren’t fans loony” perception. Well, some of us are, usually the ones with very loud voices and strange ideas. Quite a lot of us though – we just wanted to enjoy ourselves. There was an anniversary round the corner, but before that…
…1992, and my first convention approached. A good friend urged me to go. I wasn’t going to, as I was still being Solitary Fan. Goodness knows a regular DWB habit isn’t conducive to wanting to meet anyone else, but I eventually went. Panopticon 1992 in Coventry was my first, and I couldn’t have imagined the chain of events it’d set off. I also couldn’t have imagined starting my first convention dancing on stage with Nick Briggs. Or at least, essaying a soft shoe shuffle beside him. He danced to the left, I danced to the right. We met in the middle. Which is why I should never – ever – be allowed to dance in public.
Shortly after that, I was wandering the merchandise hall when I was accosted by a Scottish Chap. He liked the t-shirt I was wearing. I’d arrived proudly emblazoned with the logo from Fish’s last tour and this Doug gentleman obviously felt safe to approach. We got chatting and before the day was out he’d invited me to the next meeting of the Edinburgh Local Group. Apparently he should have told others in the Group first, so I could be checked out in case I was a loony. I still don’t know what the final verdict was, but that was that. The die was cast. My path was set.
Before too much longer Manopticon rolled around. Manchester Town Hall was invaded by Who fans, and it’s safe to say that over that weekend the Edinburgh and Glasgow mob – who previously hadn’t had much to do with each other – gelled. We became a family, and that lasted for several years. I made some great, great friends that weekend. Some of those friendships endure to this day, and I’m proud to know you, folks.
Back at the BBC there may or may not have been an anniversary story. Adrian Rigelsford might or might not have been writing it and it might or might not have featured David Bowie and kd lang. BBC Worldwide might or might not have been putting up the cash, but Colin Baker definitely wasn’t going to be doing it. Given that his minuscule part of the script involved him being stuck in a courtroom again, I’m not surprised. It all fell apart, leaving us with the remarkably brave 3D special for Children In Need.
You’re all going on a journey. A very long journey.
Most people try to deny that “Dimensions in Time” ever existed. If we do that, how can we learn from history? It happened. We must ensure that the likes of it never happen again. It is one of the single stupidest, barely incompetent pieces of television ever to go out with the name Doctor Who attached – but it did tick an important box in that the Sixth Doctor finally met The Brigadier. These things – they’re important, you know. Sort of. Meanwhile, fandom gave Sam West’s character a suitable name – Shagg – and developed a drinking game which is really the only way to watch Dimensions in Time. If you’re going to put yourself through it, you might as well anesthetize yourself.
Meanwhile, Kevin Davies gave us a thing of rare beauty in the form of the celebratory documentary “30 Years in the Tardis”. Lovingly recreated scenes, intelligently chosen clips. Rare footage, real affection and Sylvester beginning his remarkable transformation into Thora Hird. Really, it had everything. The video version had even more and I still have real affection for it. It was nice to see Doctor Who being shown a bit of love for a change. All too often it seemed be ushered out of the back door of the BBC with a jacket over its head.
Then – suddenly – America came calling. Before we knew it the long-standing rumours began to coalesce into facts. There was a pilot episode for an American funded series on the way, and it absolutely definitely would feature The Doctor in a quest for his Father, Borusa. There’d be some rapping Tardis lips, too. And an excess of unnecessary continuity. Lies, all lies. Apart from the last bit, but it did mean that Sylvester got to come back for one last hurrah. He got shot, was hacked about by the Amazing Grace Holloway, said “blargh” and died. In a mortuary, he gurned his gurniest, and regenerated into… Paul McGann.
I thought you were a Doctor?
I thought YOU were a Doctor!
Now, the TV Movie has many, many things wrong with it. Some would say Eric Roberts as the Master is a major one, although his obsession with correct grammar is a rather nice touch. Others would say the Smurf Daleks and a Master who looks like one of the Pet Shop Boys in the pre-credits sequence doesn’t help the cause much.
For me, it’s the sheer amount of mucking about before anything actually happens is the problem. What it gets right – and spectacularly – is a new Doctor – Paul McGann absolutely, blissfully right even before he opens his mouth. Watch him in the lift scene, when he’s curiously staring at Grace while she studiously ignores him. There’s our Doctor, and he hasn’t even spoken yet. By the time his shoes fitted perfectly and he went scampering off leaving Grace to Oliver Hardy at the screen, I wanted him to stay forever. Wasn’t to be. His first appearance would be all we’d have. At least on television.
For me, though – there was something rather more important afoot. The night the TV Movie aired I was sitting in a small pub in the darkest corners of Edinburgh. The Local Group had convened for a celebratory screening. I noticed a young lady sitting in the corner, staring raptly at the screen. It took a while before I had the courage to speak to her – in fact, I don’t think I did manage to speak to her that night – but things began to happen. My life – well, it was about to change. My goodness, but it would change….
See those innocent, unassuming book covers up above there? Look harmless enough. You wouldn’t think that they’d be the trigger for a lifetime’s obsession, but it’s true. In my memory, it was the summer of 1977. I was seven years old. My family had just moved from Northern Ireland to a new home in Wales. I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs, doing whatever it is that seven year olds do when my Mum came home from shopping.
“Bought you these. Thought you might like them”, she said. Did I ever. And I continued to like them and a lot more besides. Because of them, I’m writing this on the eve of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. Time for a little look back at life with Doctor Who. It means a lot to me. Let me explain.
I’d been aware of Doctor Who, of course. Like every family in Britain (and considerably further afield, I suspect) legends are rife of me hiding behind the sofa, peeking out to enjoy the thrill of watching either the Bionic Granddad or old Teeth-And-Curls saving the universe on a weekly basis at Saturday tea-time. Of course, I deny everything. I was always a brave, hard as nails wee lad, and extremely unlikely to be scared by anything on television. If it were true though, I suspect it might have been Pyramids of Mars or The Brain of Morbius that did it. I have very very vague, fleeting memories – almost rewritten by a lifetime of viewing as an ostensible grown up.
However – the arrival of those two books – one Terrance Dicks, one Gerry Davis – that was THE MOMENT. That was when a passing interest developed into something more, into something that threaded its way into my life and became a part of me, of who I am. It triggered a love affair that I suspect will never ever end. Believe me, I don’t want it to.
It didn’t hit me immediately, of course. You will note that I was a hard lad, and extremely unlikely to be scared by anything on television. That applies to what I read as well, and any rumours you may have heard regarding me having to put down “The Auton Invasion” at the point where Sam’s wife opened the metal trunk and triggered off the advance of a searching Auton and go out for a consoling play in the sunshine – well, they’re malicious rumours, that’s all. I wasn’t scared. I just wasn’t, alright?
I don’t like your tone, Sir.
Yeah? Well I don’t like your face. Nor your hair.
I picked it up again eventually, of course. That book was read so often it almost fell apart, but I still have it. “The Tenth Planet”? That was even worse. To an impressionable seven year old the bare, fuss-free prose retelling the First Doctor’s final adventure against a bunch of emotionless anorak-clad monsters from another planet had an even bigger impact. The point at which I had to go for a consoling scamper in the sun came when the Cybermen broke into the South Pole base for the first time. By the time I reached the end I was a Fan, rather than just a fan. That capital letter seems important somehow. Gerry tampered considerably with the regeneration sequence in the book, but it still really works. To me, there’s still a small part expects Troughton to be revealed hands-first. It’s an interesting, equally valid approach and it tickled me no-end when the Capaldi digits were the first thing we saw of the new Twelfth Doctor just a few short months ago. I can’t imagine it was deliberate but we humans can find patterns in anything.
I’ve often wondered if those two unassuming Target Novelisations are the reason why Doctor Who for me has always been about more than just the television series. I soon reached an age where the obsession with behind the scenes facts and lists took over, the desperate need to know EVERYTHING about how it was made. Patrick Troughton has commented about not wanting to peek behind the curtain and see how the magic works because it might spoil it, and I’m not altogether sure he wasn’t wrong. Somehow though, the initial love of Doctor Who as a massive, sprawling, never-ending story – that never goes away. In print, on audio, on TV, even (god help me) for two very strange afternoons in 1989, on stage – the thrill of an exciting adventure, well told – that’s the thing. A dear friend always refers to Doctor Who as An Exciting Adventure In Time And Space, and I agree with him totally. Cut out all the hoo-hah about production, cast changes, who didn’t like working with whom, and what’s left is the child-like joy of losing yourself in an fantastic adventure with the best mate, the barmy uncle, the loony but trustworthy stranger you knew was ok from the moment you set eyes on him. If I work hard enough at it, I can recapture that sensation. Sometimes it happens instantly – about which, more anon.
I don’t know about you – and I’m told that this is not exactly normal – but Doctor Who is so intertwined with my life that were you give me virtually any episode title, I’d probably be able to tell you where I was and what I was doing at the time it was broadcast. It’s a handy little memory aid. My family probably couldn’t tell you when our beloved family pet – a Shetland Collie called Becky – delivered her first litter of pups. I can – because she did it in the small hours of the morning after “The Trial of A Time Lord”, episode 14. I can pin down the exact date that we moved to Scotland from Wales, because it happened in the week between the broadcast of “Paradise Towers”, episode 4 and “Delta and the Bannermen”, episode 1. Sitting in rented accommodation in Bonnyrigg watching an episode of my favourite television show set in the country I’d just left – that sort of thing stays with you. I can tell you exactly what I was doing and where I was on the Monday morning before the first Christopher Eccleston episode aired, because I was standing on a pavement on Slateford Road in Edinburgh staring in hushed awe at the enormous billboard that had suddenly appeared, telling me that yes it was actually happening, and Doctor Who was coming back. Oddly enough, the week before it had been displaying a twenty foot wide poster of David Tennant as Casanova. “Who is that grinning maniac”? I thought to myself. How little I knew.
Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you’re young
Meanwhile, back in “childhood”…. Season 17 suddenly arrived on television. You remember Season 17, don’t you? It’s not supposed to be very good, with the exception of “City of Death”. I was nine, and I loved every episode, especially the first four which had Daleks in. The only episodes that year I missed - of course – were the ones that had Tom and Lalla running around Paris, trying to pretend they weren’t madly in love. The grown up me gets aggravated by an obviously bored and frustrated leading man doing anything – everything – to keep his own interest up, and the almost total lack of budget given to Doctor Who in an inflation-struck 1979. But… it’s a wee firecracker of a season for ideas, isn’t it? The Daleks, burrowing to find their creator. Emotion defeats logic. An enormous monster in a pit on a planet where metal is at a premium. Spaceships crashing into each other. The Muppets, invading from ITV and stomping after the Doctor until they’re melted down into hard drugs. An enormous bull, hopping from planet to planet devouring resources and living in a giant printed circuit board while re-enacting a loose version of Greek myth. There are ideas tumbling out of every corner, almost too many for one series to hold.
Season 18 didn’t impact much on me the first time around. I have memories of travelling to the Vetch Field in Swansea quite a lot for the football – living in Dyfed meant quite a commute and we frequently didn’t get home until long after the episode ended. On the weeks when Swansea were playing away I’d have been distracted by Buck Rogers on the other side or reading yet another one of the ever expanding collection of Target Novelisations I was acquiring. A fan, ignoring the new in favour of wallowing in the past. Imagine that. Examined all these years later it’s obvious that the new broom that swept Tom Baker right out of the door didn’t quite shift the residue of the previous year, despite what “received wisdom” might tell you. Season 18 – and indeed every season afterward – is filled with just as much loony science and madness as all the seasons prior, and that’s just how I like it. This is a series which would have us believe an enormous cactus with delusions of grandeur can steal an earthling, nick his identity, turn himself into a doppelganger of our hero and acquire a bunch of rubbish mercenaries – the name of one of whom is an anagram of “Bad Actor”. We’re not exactly watching “Coronation Street” here.
The obsession grew and grew. By the time an overdubbed Nyssa announced “he was the Doctor all the time” and Tom gave way to Peter, I was more in love than ever. Oh, I didn’t know what was waiting for me.
Somehow – and given the complicated nature of contracts, repeat fees and assorted other deals that need to be made – John Nathan-Turner managed to secure sufficient repeat space on BBC2 to show an entire serial for each Doctor plus the mythical, only to be mentioned in whispers story where Three Doctors Appeared At The Same Time. The trailer that announced the imminent arrival of “The Five Faces of Doctor Who” caused a certain amount of excitement, it’s safe to say.
“An Unearthly Child” stoked things up nicely. The very first serial. History, come to life in front of my eyes. Terrance hadn’t even novelised that one at that stage (give him a couple of weeks). He hadn’t novelised “The Krotons” either, which brought on a bout of Troughton mania that has yet to abate, nearly 35 years later. “Carnival of Monsters” didn’t make much of a blip, then or now. I can appreciate the artistry but it’s never really flown for me for some reason. Perhaps I was too excited by the imminent arrival of “The Three Doctors”. Or “The Two and a Half Doctors”, as it should perhaps be called. Kicking off a grand tradition whereby anniversary serials are hamstrung by illness, awkwardness or unavailability, poor old Hartnell was resigned to pottering about in his potting shed while the other two grandstanded their way through a story involving jelly, anti-matter, recorders, Stephen Thorne shouting and the Lenny Mayne Repertory Company (Rex Robinson, basically). Somehow the magic still clings to “The Three Doctors”. That Troughton love could only increase in intensity from here. “Logopolis” came and went, with the magnificent bouffanted Davison appearing at the end to tease us before his first proper appearance in the new year. JN-T hadn’t finished with us yet though, oh no.
Who Is The Doctor?
28th December 1981, and “K9 and Company” escaped. I can’t say it was released or screened, because that seems inappropriate for a pilot so magnificently stupid, so addle-patedly wrong in every respect that it’s impossible not to love. That title sequence is justly famous, as is Brendan’s honking, K9’s carol singing, and… oh, all of it, really. But especially the theme tune. Bill Fraser always claimed he took the part in “Meglos” so’s he could kick K9. Presumably the temptation to cast him in a K9 special (and I use that word advisedly) was too much for JN-T to resist.
Back to business as usual then, and the advent of Peter Davison. Living in Scotland, we were treated to episode one of “Castrovalva” at 3:30 on a gloriously wintry weekday afternoon. Strange place to kick off a whole new era, but my god, I loved Season 19.
I love Peter Davison. Wholeheartedly. I have a list – of course I do, I’m a boy, I love lists. That list consists of a number of names – people who have appeared in Doctor Who more than once and not given anything even resembling a bad performance. There’s a cluster of familiar names, and some not so familiar. Right at the top of the list is Peter. Not only does he never give a bad performance (sometimes under extreme provocation) but I don’t think he knows how to. It’s not in him, and at a point when I was struggling towards adolescence and desperately needed one of the things I loved most not to be laughed at, he guided us (and me) through three years which seem like a golden age to me. Looked at objectively, they’re not. Not by any stretch. At best, huge chunks of Season 19 to 21 would struggle to hit midpoint in most people’s personal bests – but somehow that period seems magical to me. It was a period where all of a sudden everyone wore the same clothes, week in, week out. Where things seemed to go a bit day-glo and garish (oh, just you wait, Dunlop. Just you wait). Where suddenly fluent Sawardese was the way that everyone spoke as a matter of course (all clipped one-liners and strange sentence construction). A period where the return of old favourites would be greeted by a rousing cheer, until we actually saw them. Where Anthony Ainley could turn up as a Chinese sorcerer, as a French Taunter, as a man wearing several Perspex top hats one on top of another and we didn’t bat an eyelid. And yet… and yet… Peter held it all together, and damn well made you believe that every breathless, desperate rush towards the conclusion of episode 4 meant something. There was greatness in here.
Are The Kinda Dangerous?
We Don’t Know. You See, with the Kinda, they seem innocent enough. And they smile a lot. Or used to.
Sometimes it seemed to happen almost by accident. Christopher Bailey’s two stories. The giddy romantic rush of “Black Orchid”. The astonishing return of the Cybermen and the even more astonishing dispatch of a companion at the end of “Earthshock”. The funereal, oppressive greatness of “Terminus” episode 1, followed by the funereal, oppressive great script neutered by production hell of episodes 2-4 (albeit with an enormous Space Dog). The party atmosphere of “The Five Doctors”, the… oddness… of “Frontios”. And then there was Androzani. Davison’s Doctor sacrifices himself for a friend he’s only just met and it seems the rightest thing in the world. And then…
… it was time to welcome my teenage years, and a version of Doctor Who that seemed to be going terribly wrong. That’s what they say, you know. I have never – ever – read an analysis of the Colin Baker years of Doctor Who that isn’t steeped in regret and dislike. Just this last week a review of Doctor Who’s “best” stories ever skipped over Colin’s period with a blithe dismissal in its rush to get to Sylvester and this has always seemed unjust because I loved Season 22 then and I still get a certain amount of that love now. It is harsh and uncompromising by comparison to the three years we’d just had, but it’s not exactly Apocalypse Now, is it? The Sixth Doctor on television is very very difficult to warm to, they say, but I managed it. I didn’t manage it during “The Twin Dilemma”, which stubbornly resists revisionism and remains to this day absolutely bloody appalling, but by the time “Attack of the Cybermen” rolled around I found him really quite easy to get used to. Mind you, I was a fifteen year old boy and there were other attractions to that season. Hello, Nicola. Sorry, Nicola.
Once again that old devil hindsight whispers seductively in my ear – and yes, there’s something in almost every story in this season that lets it down. Be it body-popping Cybermen, Jason Connery’s just-out-of-drama school performance, a remarkably active BBC Tree, a performance by John Stratton as a human-eating chef that starts at “ripe” and ascends straight into “rotten”, King Richard of Darrow the Third, her from below stairs in Upstairs Downstairs descending to an even lower level of acting competence than anyone ever thought possible. Conversely…
Colin’s little “I won’t hurt you, Peri. Honest” followed by an affectionate chuck of the nose. “Don’t think I misjudged anybody quite as badly as I misjudged Lytton”, barely forty minutes after the line regarding same – “the sort of person who’d shoot his own grandmother just to keep his trigger finger supple”. The Greek Chorus of “Vengeance on Varos”, and both episode endings. The beauty of that elegant, leisurely first few minutes of “The Mark of the Rani”, where the plot takes its own sweet time to get going. The return of the Second Doctor and Jamie, for one last – very silly – hurrah. The way that once Colin gets out of that coat and into the white shirt and waistcoat he sports in the Spanish sequences he becomes the Doctor I imagine everyone wanted him to be right from the first. Even “Timelash” has Herbert, who I like but I know lots of people don’t. There are no 100 percent successful Colin Baker stories. There aren’t too many 100 percent successful Doctor Who stories, full stop. There is one that comes bloody close though.
Well, you’ve got a wife and a half there, George. She found a cure for Beck’s Syndrome forty years ago. Still, it’d be interesting to know what she’s really doing with the money.
“Revelation of the Daleks” is my favourite Doctor Who story. It has been since some time in the summer of 1986, when a late night viewing stopped me dead in my tracks with wonder at just how bleakly, nihilistically, brutally wonderful it is. The humour is pitch dark. It features genuine body horror, coupled with emotional heartbreak (Stengos’s “if you ever loved me Natasha, kill me. Kill me” while fighting to retain control of his own humanity is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen inside or outside of Doctor Who). Clive Swift’s little moments of vanity with his hairpiece, followed by the same hairpiece falling off as Jobel dies is such a wonderfully savage touch. It has Daleks as guard dogs, checking security passes in a bored manner. It has John Ogwen looking Eleanor Bron up and down in a manner so lascivious it should travel in a brown paper bag. Alexei Sayle switches from prattle to cynic to hero with no audible grinding of gears. As does Colin, actually. He has a moment here in the corridors of Tranquil Repose where he’s running along and then hears the climactic battle between DJ and Daleks coming through the tannoy. We see the DJ gunned down, then cut to Colin in the corridor as Peri’s anguished “you murdered him! Why did you have to…?” comes over the speaker. He stops and just for a second closes his eyes in pain at another senseless waste of a life. He shudders very gently, as if bowed down by it all and then takes off again, careening round the corner straight into some Daleks. “There you are! They went that way”, he blusters – which the Daleks rightly ignore, and a recaptured Colin walks off with them, with a nod that says “yes, yes. I know. Pathetic attempt, wasn’t it?” It’s a beautiful little moment, and one that shows what Colin can really do when he’s allowed to. Allied with a strong director, he could be (and is) superb. When I was fifteen, I fell in love with it. The shine hasn’t worn off yet.
At Last, Doctor.
Am I late for something?
I was beginning to fear you had lost yourself.
While I was stampeding into my teenage years – full of insecurity and anxiety about the future – it seemed that all of a sudden Doctor Who didn’t have one. Following an eighteen month break which earned Michael Grade the coveted horses-arse award from one of the increasingly noisy subsections of fandom, the subtle-as-a-brick “The Trial of a Time Lord” gave us one of the greatest additions (for those of us who like these things) to Doctor Who continuity. The Valeyard not only delivers the first of several highly self-referential broadsides contained within “Trial”, he also is the subject of one of “Trial”’s two astonishing drop-me-bacon-sandwich moments. The revelation that he’s actually The Doctor from the future but an amalgam of the Doctor’s nastier moments, stuck between regenerations… well, it’s a hair-on-end television moment. The music. Colin’s increasingly horrified reaction to what he’s being told. The way the Valeyard sits – seemingly miles away from The Doctor – and just stares at him while the balloon goes up – it all just justifies my faith in this occasionally wayward, frequently loony thing that is Doctor Who. Of course, being Doctor Who, it blows it out of the water seconds later with the advent of SuperValeyard, cheesing it in plain sight across a room full of Time Lords and Security Guards without anyone seemingly noticing. I can forgive. Just.
The other astonishing drop-me-bacon-sandwich moment – spin back to episode 8, and just watch the way everything that’s not supposed to happen in Doctor Who suddenly does. Events spiral out of control. The Doctor is taken out of the way to a point where he has to watch helplessly as his companion dies alone and terrified on the operating table, her essence drained away and replaced by an alien businessman’s mind. The Time Lords set things up so the Warrior King who is so conveniently lurking around – and is in love with Peri – arrives just after the operation. And then – just watch. Go on, just watch. Peri sits up, shouts “Protect me. I am the lord and master”. And Brian Blessed – the master of overacting, who has reduced the normally ebullient Colin to monosyllables a few minutes earlier – the ear-drum splitting, caricature of himself that we all know and love – stops. Looks in horror at the girl he thought he knew. Realises what he has to do, makes a little facial gesture that shows he’s steeling himself to do the worst thing he’ll ever have to do in his life, raises the gun… and pulls the trigger. “Trial of a Time Lord” may be a hopelessly confused mess, full of contradictory evidence, ridiculous hammy scenes in which Colin Baker and Michael Jayston needle each other while Lynda Bellingham fiddles ineffectually with a biro. It may feature a megabyte modem, a feeling of desperate tiredness and an ending where the terminally bored composer actually climaxes the entire season with the same musical sting that accompanies the matchbox in The Young Ones (“don’t look at me – I’m irrelevant”). But – for those two moments alone – it gets a free pass from me. Throw in the tragic and understated subplot of Ruth Baxter from episodes 9-12 and that incredible opening effects shot and it just about balances out all the bits that make me wince.
It ended on a relatively positive and upbeat note. But then it all fell apart. We lost Robert Holmes, Dennis Spooner, Ian Marter. Colin Baker was sacked (I still remember the day the issue of Celestial Toyroom – the Doctor Who Appreciation Society newsletter – arrived. Bright yellow. Huge headline – “Playing Dirty. Colin Baker ousted”.) . JN-T was desperate to leave, but the BBC wouldn’t let him. A mere three years after the anniversary mania it looked like it was all over. I couldn’t see – although I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time – Doctor Who lasting much longer.
And then… things seemed to stabilise, at least temporarily. But not immediately.
Gowon, Run. Run. The areas full. Of. Traps. As-well-you-know.
I didn’t know it but life was about to take another surprising turn. One day I came home from school (I’d just started sixth form) to be told that within a very short time the entire family would be headed off to Scotland to start a new life. We’d lived there before. We moved from Ireland to Wales, then up to Scotland (just in time for Season 18). We moved back down to Wales again in time for Season 20 (told you I can reckon my life by what Who was on where). Exactly halfway through Season 24 we were back in Scotland again, but not before as a 16 year old – desperately serious and wanting TO be taken seriously – I’d watched the new Doctor falling arse over elbow and Kate O’Mara impersonating poor, poor Bonnie Langford in a production that screamed “Will this do??!!” in enormous capital letters. Letraset, day-glo capital letters. I’m glad I got out of Wales before “Delta and the Bannermen” started. I like “Paradise Towers”, but the abuse from my schoolmates seemed to indicate that they didn’t much like the way things were going and a story set in a Welsh holiday camp was unlikely to improve matters. As it turned out, “Delta” proved to be elegant, lyrical, wistful and many other things that made me think this programme really could do absolutely anything.
Ridiculously enough Doctor Who even got me a job. I went for an interview with an advisor at the job centre in December 1987. Me being me, I went in with a Doctor Who book sticking out of my pocket. The interviewer spotted it. “You like reading?”, he said. “Yes”, I squeaked, ratcheting up and down the vocal register (it was that time of every teenage boy’s life). “Why not try for work experience in a library?”, he said. So I did. 25 years later, I’m still in the same job. It’s all John Lucarotti’s fault. Him and the Abbot of Amboise, who was peeking out of my jacket pocket during the interview. Good grief.
I know it’s not as good as it used to be, but I’m still terribly interested
Meanwhile back at the mothership Doctor Who was fighting a valiant but ultimately losing battle to the forces of Weatherfield. “Coronation Street” was always unstoppable. Even more so back in the late eighties, when Doctor Who was hobbled with a production team that was exhausted and a management that had lost faith. Andrew Cartmel arrived, gave things a good kick up the arse and began to drag things around. Things were getting interesting. I like huge swathes of McCoy-era Doctor Who. It doesn’t feel like the rest of the series, in some way I can’t quite define, and it has problems – primarily my total lack of interest in Ace means that the final two season’s focus on her tend to make my attention drift. Sylvester is a wonderful performer when he’s being quiet, quirky, wistful, thoughtful, ruminative. His Season 24 persona is great and I could have done with him playing it a bit longer in that vein. Cartmel had other ideas and the Seventh Doctor became the devious schemer, the player of Jenga in a Thousand Pub Basements. Unfortunately Sylvester doesn’t convince when he has to really sell the heavy stuff. Paul Cornell has put forward a rather lovely theory that this Doctor is constantly frustrated by his inability to express heady emotion properly. A nice idea, but on-screen a number of moments that should have knocked me sideways… didn’t. Because gurning – unless you are Les Dawson doing the “blow the candle out” story – is never the answer.
That said – as I was settling into my new job, so was Sylvester. Season 25 really seemed to spark people’s imaginations again. “Remembrance” was the one that everyone talked about but it was “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” that really got to me. If you get the chance, do go and look at it again. Alan Waring really plays a blinder. It looks and sounds gorgeous, it’s unnerving and off-kilter in so many different ways and the whole thing is tailored to Sylvester’s strengths. No other Doctor could do that distracting-the-gods routine. His walk away from the collapsing tent – likewise, all him. And yes, it has a double insult to the viewing public. Whizzkid representing me, and the Gods of Ragnarok for the passive yet deadly audience whose boredom spells death to the troubled entertainer. Thing is – those barbs are true. I was like that. I probably still am, to an extent. I try to hide it, but my enthusiasm gets the better of me sometimes. If you’ve read this far you probably agree.
What’s that noise?
A Cry in the Dark.
Season 26 roared out of the traps with no promotion and no support from anyone in the BBC, or so it seemed. Unsurprisingly, a strong set of stories went unwatched by James and Jennifer Public – and that’s a shame, as there are some arrestingly good things in here. “Ghost-Light” and “Fenric” are rightly lauded but I’ve always been quietly fond of “Survival” as well (oh, JN-T just never could resist the hiding-in-plain-sight commentary on the state of his programme, could he)?
By this stage I was 19, and still Mr Solitary Fan. I’d had my first stint with the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, which went from the month of the cancellation announcement in 1985 through to the end of season 25. Not the luckiest time to enter the swimming pool, and eventually the amount of people pissing in it persuaded me to exit. I was happier on my own, to be honest. Despite the valiant rearguard action of Neil Hutchings during his period editing “Celestial Toyroom” there was a real feeling of last-one-out-turn-out-the-lights about things, and I didn’t need to have 32 pages worth of grumbling (then – following a catastrophic misallocation of society money, rather fewer than that) delivered to me every month to make me feel sad about Doctor Who. I could do that all on my own, as 1989 shaded into 1990, then into 1991. Would it ever return? How would I cope? Would girls ever look at me if I admitted to being word perfect on “The Mark of the Rani”? We shall see. The Wilderness Years beckoned.
Sad, sad news tonight. David Jacobs has passed away and (like many others, I imagine) I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. He was the consumate broadcaster, a superb communicator, with that often talked about but difficult to achieve knack of making the listener feel that he was talking directly to them. Like Peel, like Skues, like Everett, listening to his shows felt like being part of one of the world’s biggest secrets. Even though you knew there were millions of others listening you still felt it was you he was really focussing on. That’s a unique and cherishable skill.
He survived having the pages of the news bulletin he was reading live on air being set on fire by a friendly colleague. He presented Pick of the Pops, Housewive’s Choice. He hosted Any Questions for nearly 20 years, chaired Juke Box Jury from 1959 to 1967 and commentated on Eurovision. In amongst that lot he found time to serve a stint as one of the original four Top of the Pops presenters. He was even no mean impersonator – although his early attempts on the BBC General Forces programme were kiboshed at the outset by a producer who told him – “Jacobs, your impersonations are AWFUL. But the way you introduced them… you should be an announcer.” So David became an announcer. Perceptive man, that producer.
He was dozens of different characters in Journey Into Space (including – at the last – Jet himself in one of the brace of revival plays a few years ago). Writer Charles Chilton fondly remembered that he could always give a character part to David – he’d simply whip out another different coloured marker pen in order to delineate which character was which and which accent he’d be using, and merrily carry on. This despite the other cast member’s tendency to smear his lip-mic with Marmite just before recording. Just to see if he’d get through it. He always could. There’s a scene in Journey Into Space in which Jet and his crew are grilled remorselessly by a team of journalists. David’s playing every single one. You wouldn’t know unless you’d been told. If you’ve ever heard Journey Into Space, you’ll already be aware of the impact Jacobs made with his most famous character – the Martian-Controlled-Edwardian-Abductee James Whitaker. The cold, glassy monotone is a world away from the performer’s normal voice and it sends a chill down through the ages.
A man with a mischievous streak, he made himself known around the BBC by the simple and yet somehow devious trick of repeatedly having himself paged in the BBC canteen. The various production staff and decision makers heard his name repeatedly, thought he must be someone extremely useful to be in such demand and started seeking him out. It was years before he confessed, I think. Sellers did much the same thing, ringing up Dennis Main Wilson and pretending to be Kenneth Horne. Brass neck and pure, irreplaceable talent will get you a long way.
He appeared in “Stardust”. Headhunted by Radcliffe and Maconie, he presented records from Cream in the “Jacobs Cream Crackers” segment. Broadcast regularly on the BBC – barring illness – from 1945 to 2013.
His final broadcast was just a few weeks ago. The voice was almost gone, barely more than a quavering whisper, but the show was freighted with warmth. I’m listening to it now and the poignancy is mixed with a feeling of immense gratitude. His old friend Desmond Carrington devoted his show that weekend to a repeat of a lengthy chat with David. I like to think that he was listening at home, chuckling to himself. An inveterate giggler at all times, he’d surely have loved the attention even whilst being slightly bemused by it all.
An extraordinary career, a lovely man. As a dedicated follower of his many different incarnations ever since childhood, I’m going to miss him very very much. But – what a career. Just… what a career. He certainly doesn’t owe us anything. We owe him everything. I’ll miss him.
On the 18th July 1953 the BBC broadcast the first episode of “A Thriller In Six Parts For Television”. Heralded by Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War”, Nigel Kneale’s “The Quatermass Experiment” grabbed the public hard right from the start. Blessed with the finest collaborator he could have had in the shape of the redoubtable Rudolph Cartier, Kneale’s tale of just what happens when mankind encounters the unknown was an immediate success. Cartier was not a man to let limitations stand in the way of the execution of his partner’s ambition. Technical shortcomings of the period were overcome with simple ingenuity – Kneale’s hands made a cameo in the final episode playing the fronds of a monster which had invaded Westminster Abbey. It was cast to the hilt, beautifully designed and all surviving evidence (sadly, only the first two episodes survive, and one of those features a somewhat unwelcome distraction in the form of a 1950s fly wandering over the telerecording screen) suggest an accomplished, confident production. With André Morell – Kneale’s original choice for Quatermass – unavailable, Reginald Tate made a marvelously world-weary, troubled anti-hero. A sequel was inevitable, and the success of the original serial can best be illustrated by this memo from Cecil McGivern, BBC Television’s Controller of Programmes. Commercial television launched in the UK on September 22 1955 and McGivern knew the BBC had to come up with something special -
Had competitive television been in existence then, we would have killed it every Saturday night while [The Quatermass Experiment] lasted. We are going to need many more ‘Quatermass Experiment’ programmes.
Kneale and Cartier had been busy in the intervening period, scandalising the nation with their version of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, and hopes were high for the new serial. Sadly, tragedy struck the production less than a month before location filming began when Reginald Tate collapsed and died. As the man chosen to replace him, John Robinson had a huge task ahead. “Quatermass II” had a lot riding on it. It more than delivered. More expansive than the first serial, with luxurious location filming and memorable set pieces which unsettled many who saw it (a young Ringo Starr, for one). Although Robinson looks terribly uncomfortable in the early installments (and indeed, appears to be reading from cue-cards in several scenes) he settles into the role and by the end of the serial he’s a confident, accomplished Quatermass.
December 1958 saw the arrival of “Quatermass and the Pit”. By this time the BBC was more than able to match the demands placed upon them by Kneale and Cartier (the final episode of “Quatermass II” suffers a little by being visibly strapped for cash, with an audibly wooden space ship and a spacesuit so unwieldy that Robinson has to be carried across the set by effects whizzes Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie), and “Quatermass and the Pit” remains by some considerable distance my all time favourite television serial. Everything about it works. Kneale finally gets his wish with André Morell taking over from Robinson as Quatermass, and he’ s perfect in the part. It’s a definitive performance – I don’t think Morell could deliver a bad one if he tried – and he’s more than matched by Cec Linder’s Matthew Roney, Anthony Bushell’s Colonel Breen and Richard Shaw as Sladden.
It’s eerie, unsettling, has an underlying concept that refuses to let go and features nightmarish recreations of a Martian civilisation that – precisely because they’re so fragmentary and dreamlike – you’d be hard put to better today. This one gripped the public even harder than the previous two serials – as evidenced by Neddie Seagoon as Quatermass OBE in The Goon Show’s “The Scarlet Capsule” and Hancock terrified out of his wits by the last episode in Hancock’s Half Hour’s “The Horror Serial” – but Kneale felt it was time to rest the character.
It would be twenty years before Quatermass would be seen again and this time he was on ITV. Soaked in bitterness, pessimism and cynicism, this concluding serial (simply titled “Quatermass”) gave us a poisoned civilisation, with Britain slowly grinding to a halt and reverting to savagery whilst something harvests young human beings from beyond the atmosphere. As Quatermass John Mills stumbles through the whole thing like a man battered repeatedly by circumstance. His Professor is an old, tired, enfeebled gentleman – almost forgotten by civilisation but somehow bravely pushing on. The ending is a shocker and pretty much ends the character for good. The serial is flawed – in its original four part version it wanders all over the place, with an unwelcome diversion in episode three into televised erotica which has to be seen to be disbelieved – but Mills, aided by Bruce Purchase, Simon McCorkindale and Barbara Kellerman – delivers a barnstorming performance. The bleakness was always there in Quatermass – whilst fundamentally optimistic about humanity, Kneale was all too aware of the dangers inherent in the human condition. The shattered Britain is an all too realistic extrapolation of what might happen if the instincts that cause The Wild Hunt from Quatermass and the Pit were allowed to fester unchecked. Looking back, it’s difficult to see how else it could have ended.
As was common in the 1950s and 60s, the Quatermass serials were adapted as cinema films. Hammer did the job, compressing Kneale’s three hour epics into less than half that running time and while much of the subtlety is lost – particularly in the initial film, where much of the psychological drama of the original is jettisoned in favour of a hunt-and-kill-the-monster-secenario – all three have much to recommend them. Kneale famously loathed Brian Donlevy as Quatermass and whilst those criticisms have some justification, particularly in the first film where he is almost entirely unlikeable, striding through scenes barking orders and refusing to listen to anyone no matter how sensible the advice – by “Quatermass II” he’s settled down a bit. There’s some warmth in Donlevy’s performance, and he seems a lot more confident.
Seen from this remove both films are perfectly serviceable, competent and enjoyable science fiction thrillers. Yes, the creeping paranoia and anything-can-happen dread of Kneale’s original scripts is somewhat diluted but there’s a momentum, a breathless headlong rush to both films that keeps things moving. They’re snappy, concise retellings of the original stories and although the brush-strokes are broader there’s much to enjoy – not least when Sid James pitches up in “Quatermass II” in a part originally played by Roger Delgado.
Following a delay of some years Hammer returned to Quatermass in 1967, belatedly adapting “Quatermass and the Pit”. Lessons had obviously been learned. Although still a snappy 90 minutes or so the film adaption of QatP is every bit as good as the television original, albeit stylistically completely different. Where the original moves in shadow, the film – in colour for the first time in the history of Quatermass – is louder, bigger, noisier and none the worse for it. Andrew Keir replaces Donlevy as Quatermass and he nails it. This Professor doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but there’s a twinkle and a warmth to the man that with the best will in the world Donlevy doesn’t quite manage. Keir is almost as glorious in the part as Morell and his return for Radio 3′s “The Quatermass Memoirs” in the 1990′s makes him and Donlevy the only actors to have played the part more than once. I’m so glad he came back. He deserved to.
That would appear to have been that. However, Quatermass refused to die. BBC4 commissioned a live remake of the original serial and on 2nd April 2005, Professor Quatermass returned to British television one last time. Jason Flemyng took on the part – a younger, tougher, stronger Professor than previously seen, but still the conflicted and troubled scientist that Kneale originally envisaged. No matter who plays the part that always shines through and Flemyng played with the contradictions wonderfully, none more so than in the final scenes (now transplanted to The Tate Gallery) where he indulges in a one-to-one dialogue with the creature who was once his friend and colleague. Beautifully shot and underlit, Flemyng virtually soliloquizes the agony and guilt he feels for what he’s inadvertently unleashed and all of a sudden the pyrotechnics of the same scene in the Donlevy version seem a million miles away.
It has been said by those much wiser than I that the initial three Quatermass serials laid down the template for more or less all television science fiction which came afterwards – covering as they did three main plot strands which would serve countless writers well down the ages: 1. We go to them. 2. They come to us. 3. They were there already. Twenty years later, Kneale laid down a fourth with his belated conclusion to the Quatermass saga – 4. Hippies – especially youngsters – are bad, and the best thing for them is to lead them to a stone circle and evaporate them. That one’s not so influential, but the initial point stands.
Quatermass changed the face of British Science Fiction. Kneale – notoriously resistant to the accusation of ever writing Science Fiction – would have balked at that but without Kneale, without Cartier, without Quatermass, much of what we’ve enjoyed through the years probably wouldn’t exist. If you like your science fiction to jolt you in your seat, to fire your imagination with concepts that have a way of gnawing their way into your brain and never letting go, Quatermass is for you. Almost uniquely in television, Quatermass offers an unparalleled opportunity to watch multiple actors interpret the same role. I’ve often wondered if the forced recasting of the Professor might not have – in some tiny way – smoothed the path for the producers of “Doctor Who” when the time came to recast William Hartnell. Maybe not, but the troubled scientist with the heart in the right place and horror of what might happen if knowledge remains untempered by humanity – well, he’s there wherever you look. He’s in “A For Andromeda”. Kneale would be disgusted at the idea, but he’s there in “Doctor Who” (Kneale never had much time for Who, even putting the phone down on one script-editor who asked him if he’d be interested in writing for the series). The surreptitious invasion from the outside can be found all over the place, not least in “Counterstrike” and “Undermind”. You’ll find echoes of Kneale’s plots in countless television serials, but in many ways the originals remain definitive.
So much greatness followed in Kneale and Cartier’s wake. Generations of creators have been influenced by their work and will continue to be for a very long time to come. Kneale himself would continue to cast an enormous shadow with “The Road”, “The Year of the Sex Olympics”, “The Stone Tape”, “The Witches”, “The Crunch”, “Wine of India”, “Bam! Pow! Zapp!”, “Beasts” and many more still to come. The original serials remain high-water marks in television science fiction. They’re unmatchable, untouchable, and all these years later remain the very greatest of the great. Bernard Quatermass endures. He always will. Happy Birthday, Bernard.
In 1955, it seemed that everything was going well for Tony Hancock. Although not quite the beloved national figure he would later become, he was familiar to audiences throughout Britain. A seasoned – if nervous – stage performer and a confident radio artiste, his star was rising. He’d put in a series of well-regarded turns as one of the exasperated foils for Archie Andrews in Educating Archie. He’d just finished his first series of Hancock’s Half Hour in February, and the BBC had immediately commissioned a second. Things appeared to be going well. Then it all started to unravel.
Hancock was contracted to appear at the Adelphi Theatre in Talk of the Town, but theatrical agents George Black Ltd felt there was a conflict of interest. They weren’t happy with Hancock appearing on radio while contracted to do theatre shows, and wrote to Hancock’s agents, Kavanagh Productions Ltd. The BBC began wrangling with George Black’s as to their legal rights, and eventually a compromise was reached. However, the strain took a severe toll on Hancock. Never a comfortable stage performer, he was on stage a few days before recording on the second radio series was due to begin when he walked off before the final number of the first performance. Dickie Henderson – ever thoughtful, kind and generous – stepped in to cover Hancock for that night’s second performance.
Producer Dennis Main Wilson, accompanied by Jimmy Edwards, set off to try and track down their errant friend and star. A tour of London’s watering holes proved fruitless and eventually the search was abandoned for the night. On returning home Main Wilson received a phone call from a Superintendent at Scotland Yard, who happened to be attending the first recording session on a pair of comps tickets provided by the Producer. Hancock had been spotted on the last plane to Rome.
At this point George Black’s rescinded their original agreement with the BBC, on the grounds that if Hancock wasn’t well enough to appear as contracted at the Adelphi, he certainly couldn’t appear on the radio. With angry agents on one side and a clearly exhausted and unwell star on the other, the BBC decided on April 15th that the series would go ahead – but without Hancock. A temporary replacement needed to be found and quickly. In the high pressure recording environment of the 1950s, this situation was – if not common – at least not without precedent. The Goon Show occasionally had to call in last minute replacements for an indisposed performer. Valentine Dyall, Kenneth Connor, Jack Train and Dick Emery all at various times stood in for an unwell Sellers, Milligan or Secombe. Thankfully, a solution presented itself almost immediately this time.
Main Wilson made a call to Harry Secombe’s agent, Jimmy Grafton. Secombe was an old friend of Hancock – the pair toasted the birth of Secombe’s first child together on a deserted Blackpool pier in April 1949 – and he readily agreed to take over. The first show was recorded on the 17th of April; it went out on the 19th and there was no time to change much, so Secombe effectively took on Hancock’s part but under his own name. Hancock remained out of action for several weeks so Secombe continued for a further two shows before Hancock returned to the fray for the fourth recording session. He wasn’t able to resume his performances at the Adelphi just yet, but Black’s relented enough to enable him to make the recording sessions for the BBC.
Nearly sixty years later it’s difficult to judge just how well this last ditch rescue attempt might have worked. Much of this troubled second run is missing : the BBC operating their traditional approach to episode retention of a bandy legged man trying to stop a pig in a passage. Over half of the series is gone, including not only the three Secombe episodes, but also Hancock’s return the following week. It’s a shame, as these four episodes form a little isolated pocket in the more familiar Hancock’s Half Hour that we think we know. They’re a diversion, a side-turning, with little in common with the rest of the series. Or are they? How exactly did Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, Main Wilson and the other cast members deal with the enforced absence of their friend and star? Thankfully the scripts for all four episodes survive: we are able to at least get a flavour of how things might have played.
Episode 1 – “A Holiday In France” – bears little evidence of the turmoil. Although it carries a cover sheet with Secombe’s name – presumably typed after the fact – the script itself carries Tony’s name all the way through, with the exception of the very first page. Announcer Adrian Waller gravely announces:
The following section is struck through -
ADRIAN Tonight marks the return of this notorious radio series… this spotlight on the procrastination of radio comedy stars. I personally had Easter Monday off, but our star? Oh no – a weekend in Paris. But even these good things had to come to an end…
A handwritten annotation gives Adrian a substantially different speech -
ADRIAN I personally was working on Easter Monday, but Bill Kerr? Oh, no. At the end of the last series he left Tony Hancock in England and spent a holiday in Paris with… well he says it was a great friend of his – Harry Secombe.
It’s business as usual after this, with Harry playing Hancock’s lines. Minimal adjustment is made – there just wasn’t time. Funnily enough, this might not appear to be as much of a problem as you would think. Although Secombe’s comedy persona is a lot more voluble than Hancock’s – all noise, giggles, raspberries and nervous energy – it’s easy to imagine this following scene being dropped into a Goon Show with Ned of Wales at the helm. Seagoon could quite easily deliver this with the pitch rising, getting faster and faster as we reach the end of the speech. All it needs is a Grytpype -Thynne “you silly twisted boy” in place of Bill’s capper line. Kenneth Williams does his usual sterling role playing every other cast member that the regulars couldn’t manage.
KENNETH Attention all passengers. We will be arriving in Dover Harbour in approximately half an hour. All Foreign Nationals are advised to get their passports ready. Will American Service Personnel please stand by their cars, and British Tourists please note, this is your last chance for cheap fags and booze.
TONY/HARRY Ah, Dover. (Pomp and Circumstance music under, rising to a crescendo) There she stands, rising majestically above the cold grey waters. Those great white cliffs which for centuries have welcomed home the traveller to his native shores. The castle, set high above the sea, proudly symbolising the domination with which we jealously guard our island home. Dover… whose unfaltering courage in our darkest hour shone like a beacon across the troubled continent… an inspiration to Britons the world over. If the British Empire lives for a thousand years, the name of Dover will forever ring in our ears. Dover, oh Dover, I humbly salute thee.
BILL (slight pause) Tub?
BILL That’s Calais. You’re facing the wrong way.
The rest of the script is a flashback to the misadventures of the lads in Paris. Having presumed they were booking for Southend (Harry to Bill – “that’s the last time I leave you to make the arrangements”), our heroes fetch up in the capital under the impression they’re in Blackpool – well, both cities have a great iron tower rising in the middle of them, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Bill, by the way, is beginning his evolutionary journey backwards down the ladder. While still quite sharp and not yet the amiable idiot he’d become in latter series – Billo The Performing Man is quite a long way off – he’s definitely a lot thicker and more gullible than he was in the first series as subsequent episodes will definitely show. First evidence of this appears when he comments while they’re in the middle of the English Channel – “the Thames gets a bit wide here, doesn’t it?”.
Before too long, Harry and Bill are locked up for attempting to underpay their fare – six and three instead of twenty five thousand francs. Harry’s soon living out his persecution fantasies, thinking he’s about to be executed (“please make sure the blade is hollow ground, I have tender skin”). They’re eventually released by an infinitely weary Kenneth Williams, the other prisoners having clubbed together the bail money because they couldn’t stand the noise.
Having been cleaned out by a passing Alan Simpson – Bill spends the last of their cash on dirty postcards – our heroes are reduced to busking in the street. Oddly enough, the Parisians don’t seem overly impressed by their spirited rendition of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, and eventually, Bill and Harry fetch up at a British Travel Agent, with the intent of cashing a cheque in order to get them home.
HARRY Hmmm. Trans World Tours. Paris, Birmingham, Bolton and Oldham. On Parle Francais, Hier Spricht Mein Deutsch, English spoken, American understood.
Needless to say, the owner of the travel agency is one Sidney James – “when I’m on the run from the police, I travel at reduced rates”. A classic James fiddle follows, with Harry and Bill initially signed up the Foreign Legion, then put further in debt by trying to buy themselves out. Eventually, Sid procures some passports.
SIDNEY Just let’s jot down your descriptions. Hancock, five foot six. Weight thirteen stone, brown hair, blue eyes, flat feet. Kerr, five foot nine, eleven stone, no hair, red eyes and BIG feet. Right. as soon as I can get two drunks who look like that up a dark alleyway, you’ll be alright.
And so, the lads manage to make it back to the Dover ferry. Not, however, before they encounter… HER.
As Sidney gives them a night on the town a lovelorn Harry/Tony finds himself alone in the middle of a masked ball with nothing but a phrasebook for company.
HANCOCK Oh said Tubby, how unhappy I am. Ho Hum. Now, let’s see. Useful phrases. “Je Vais Vous Embracer”. I am going to kiss you. “Vous L’essyez et je vous donnerai un coup” – you do, and I’ll thump you one. End of love section. “At the draper’s shop”. “Qu’est ce que vous avez dans les pantalons canvas” – “What have you got in canvas trousers?” Ooo, I’m going to use that lot, aren’t I? Avez-vous… ooops!
At which point, Andree Melly treads on his foot.
In the previous series, a sort of love interest was provided by Moira Lister. Lister having headed off between series it seems that a new female co-star was required – Hattie Jacques and the immortal Grizelda Pugh still being some way off. Andree Melly arrives lumbered with a thick French accent (something which Galton and Simpson freely admit gave them headaches as the series wore on).
Romance is in the air, Andree having correctly spotted that Harry/Tony is English – “what Frenchman would wear a bowler hat on top of his beret?” Thankfully, this being a masked ball, the moment of truth can be safely deferred until midnight – the point at which lovers traditionally reveal themselves to each other. A rather sweet interlude follows with the two dancing, and Andree genuinely appearing to like Harry/Tony. The usual Hancock pomposity is almost entirely absent, confining himself to a comment about his dancing ability – “you’d better watch me feet in the Charleston. When I get going they’re in and out like flashing sabres”.
All too soon, midnight approaches.
ANDREE Ah, it’s midnight. Time to take our masks off.
HANCOCK At last.
ANDREE The most exciting part of the evening. We remove these hideous papier mache masks and see each other for the first time.
HANCOCK Go on, then.
TONY (admiration) Andree…
ANDREE I hope you’re not too disappointed with me.
TONY Andree – you’re… you’re beautiful. I… I hope you’re not too disappointed with ME.
TONY I’ve had mine off since ten o’clock.
Back on board the ferry, there are plans to throw Bill’s mucky books over the side – with any luck they’ll wash up at Great Yarmouth and they’ll be able to get them back with a tidal chart. Tony’s still lovelorn, reminiscing about their earlier visit to the Louvre. Unfortunately, they’ve brought Bill along.
ANDREE Have you seen Rodin’s “Kiss?”
BILL No, but I’ve seen two mice bite each other. (LAUGHS) Get that. Rodins… rodents… two mice. That was a joke. (LAUGHS) An English joke. (DRIES) I’m Australian myself.
Further evidence of the lack of time available for rewrites follows, with one of Hancock’s traditional chats with a passing Alan Simpson. A regular feature of the first series, these little interludes always involve a tall story and gentle interjections from Simpson (do they?) Yes, they do. (oh, right. So then what?). In this one Simpson’s a curator, and Hancock claims to be an artist – an impressionist – “what do you think of this one? Hallo Archie, Hallo Brough, well, well well.”
Soon enough though, lovers meeting ends in forced farewells. It’s time for Harry/Tony to leave, but not before a final passionate clinch with Andree.
TONY Goodbye Andree, I must go. It’s getting dark, my train leaves soon. One last kiss before I go. Oh, Andree (KISS) Oooh, you’re cold, my darling. It won’t be for long. (KISS) I’ll be back. Put your arms around me, Andree. Andree, please put your arms around me. Andree…
ANDREE Tony, I’m over here. That’s the Venus De Milo.
Back at Dover, our heroes have arrived at Customs. Tony/Harry’s trunk is suspiciously heavy. There’s a reason for that – Andree’s inside, having decided to come back to England with our lovestruck hero. Kenneth Williams is not impressed – “So, smuggling livestock into the country, eh?”, and Tony/Harry gives in, ordering a porter to take his bags. To Dartmoor, which is inevitably where he’s going to end up.
And that’s the end of the first episode of this remarkable parallel universe version of Hancock’s Half Hour. Bill’s continuing reverse evolution notwithstanding, things seem more or less as normal – Sidney’s on the fiddle, the Simpson/Hancock chat is intact. Without Moira to bluster at, the Hancock character is a bit more vulnerable, a bit more lonely than he is wont to be at this point. One assumes that Secombe played it more or less straight – an excellent comic actor, I’m sure he wouldn’t have insulted Hancock by pastiching him. He’d have found his own way. Thankfully, by the next episode the production team had a little more time to steer things, and in “The Crown Jewels”, we see a little more Harry and a bit less Hancock. How do things turn out? Tune in next time. Closing Theme, Up To End. Segue, Playout.