Sunday, 30 June 2013

Glastonbury Festival 2


Glastonbury Festival 2013, 28-30 June

Ronnie, Sir Mick, Keef and Charlie. Haim not pictured.
(Image: Guardian)













Another enjoyable day in front of my virtual Worthy Farm. Two days in and it's looking like one of the best Glastonburys for

a while.


No porridgey soft metal today, thankfully. The day begins on BBC3…    
LAURA MVULA. Well done orchestral angst pop. Striking singer, in the same ball park as Florence and the Machine. ‘That’s Alright’ is a great song, but can’t help thinking of Eartha Kitt for some reason.
HAIM. Hard to judge. Three sisters with an engaging mash up of ‘80s synths, call and response choruses and indie rock. The lady Killers?
NOAH AND THE WHALE. 4 albums, apparently. Smartly reference everyone from Talking Heads to Springsteen via Hothouse Flowers, but too slick for me. ‘Tonight’s the Night’ is rather good.
BEN HOWARD. OK, worthy singer/songwriter stuff. I thought he was more entertaining in his off stage interview beforehand.
THE STRYPES. Bloody hell! The new Vaccines with a dose of Dr Feelgood. On ‘Blue Collar Jane’, the singer is Lee Brilleaux. They’re fifteen. School’s out.
TOM ODELL (unplugged). Astonishingly mature performance of superior ballad ‘Another Love’ by singer who looks about 12. Headlining the John Peel Stage tomorrow night.
MAVERICK SABER. With a cover of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ on a beautiful summer’s day, he’s won. But mate – you’re not black. Besides, whatever happened to
Finlay Quaye?
PRIMAL SCREAM (with HAIM). Mr Gillespie’s pink suit is brilliant. ‘Rocks’ is the best Rolling Stones song they never wrote. Immediately start leaping around the front room. Guesting, the lady Killers fit right in. How bizarre is it to get the Scream to warm up for the Stones, when a fair bit of their set riffs on the headliners’ back catalogue? Exhibit B: ‘Country Girl’. ‘Rocks’ gets another outing later on BBC2, together with ‘Movin’ on Up’ (channelling ‘Sympathy for the Devil’), ‘Swastika Eyes’ and ‘It’s Alright, It’s OK’, again with the seemingly ubiquitous Haim sisters.
The BBC have obviously spent a fortune on The White Queen because they’re even flogging it in the middle of their Glastonbury coverage.
RUDIMENTAL. Another black and white feel good band, with a blonde singer who’s as cute as a button. Good beats and synths, but the trumpet player should have tuned up. Add to the CD list.
HAIM (unplugged). This band’s management obviously have something on the BBC, as this is the third time they’ve been on since 7 o’clock. Haim’s first album’s not even out for another two weeks. ‘Let’s Do This’ wins me over. The indie Hanson.
TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB. Healthy indie pop. Terrific haircut and suit on the front man. I hope my niece will now play the CDs I bought her. On ‘Someday’, the guitars are growling. ‘That was pretty epic,’ the Annoyingly Chirpy Presenter says.
EXAMPLE. ‘You’ll be glad to know all the shit songs are out of the way.’ How on Earth did this charisma vacuum get so far up the running order? ‘All the Wrong Places’, Mr Example? You’re not kidding.
Over to BBC2 for the main event...
ROLLING STONES. On the cover of the Radio Times, the Stones insist that playing Glastonbury is ‘not about the money.’ Like hell. Why, then, did you initially want to restrict the BBC coverage to three songs? Come to that, why are you charging obscene ticket prices for Hyde Park?
Whatever. In the end, it’s the music that matters. The Stones might idle along in second gear now, and at times it sounds like the relaxed on-stage jam is going to fall over into noodly self indulgence. But there’s Sir Mick, unnaturally thin and an accomplished blues harp player, bouncing around the stage like he’s made of rubber. There’s Charlie, Keef and Ronnie, laying down a slick, sleazy strut. On ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Sir Mick is all in black and black fur, the silhouette of Turner in Performance, a shiver-down-the-spine moment. ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, a throaty blast of saxophone on ‘Brown Sugar’… with a combined age of over 300, the Stones really are living legends, the bluesy, still rolling id of The Beatles.
Predictably, the encore’s worth waiting for. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ with two choirs and the Pyramid Stage audience singing their lungs out. For the closer, an urgent ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ with a barrage of fireworks. Brilliant. Mick Taylor’s in the group hug at the end, too.  
CHASE & STATUS. Alternative headliners on The Other Stage. That’s how to do the rock/rap/dance crossover. Sampling The Doors doesn’t hurt either.
THE STRYPES (acoustic). ‘Blue Collar Jane’. They’re supporting Aztec Monkeys on tour. Enough said.
By this time of the morning, I’m surprised that Haim aren’t reading the
as well.
HURTS. Headlining the John Peel Stage. Gothy, with a singer who looks like he uses the same tailor as Dave Vanian. Get a bit distracted by the dancers. Another CD purchase is on the cards.
PUBLIC ENEMY. OK, I appreciate hip hop, but it’s still not for me.
JOSEPHINE (acoustic). ‘What a Day’. Singer/songwriter territory again, but good.
ALABAMA SHAKES. Good ole rock ‘n’ roll, with a singer channelling Janis Joplin. The bassist is wearing dungarees, something you don’t see every day. Not usually my kind of thing, but on the strength of these songs I wouldn’t mind hearing an album.
JOHNNY MARR. Love this man and always will, for obvious reasons. A new song and an old one – ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. The Man does surprisingly authentic Morrissey-style vocals.  
RODRIGUEZ. Another legend, but he looks like I’m starting to feel. It’s 1.25am.
EVERYTHING EVERYTHING. Smart, unusual. Reminded of Gang of 4, but bed’s not far away.
LONDON GRAMMAR (acoustic). Lovely, mellow stuff.
SAVAGES. All in black and rather marvellous. Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division are definitely on their list of influences. CD please, and…
FUNNIEST MOMENT OF THE DAY: David Tennant silencing Coldplay-hating Noel Fielding on What a Load of Buzzcocks with a blast of ‘I Will Fix You’.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Glastonbury Festival 1


'What a scummy man...' The Arctics show Glastonbury how it's done.
(Image: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)














Glastonbury Festival 2013, 28-30 June


An out of touch middle-aged man dips his toe in the waters of modern popular music.

I’ve been to Glastonbury. Well, to be strictly accurate I’ve watched the first day’s musical offerings on a combination of BBC2 and BBC3. As a 49 year-old man who, these days, doesn’t know his One Direction from his Palma Violets, below are my impressions of 2013’s pop landscape from the reassuring comfort of the Fairclough Towers living room.    
RITA ORA. I have no idea who she is or how many albums she’s done. Great voice, even if she has a soft metal backing band. Overall: hmm. Reminded of Pink and Avril Lavigne.
JAKE BUGG. More like it. Distinctive, soulful voice and Mr Bugg can hold the attention of a Pyramid Stage audience with only an acoustic guitar and songs to fall in and out of love to.
LUMINEERS. A bit of Mumford and Sons with a dash of Arcade Fire. Fun. Can really get a crowd going.
PROFESSOR GREEN. More soft metal, this time with samples and rapping. The moral here, Mr Green, is never employ a back up singer who’s better than you are. I have to say, the call-and-response stuff gets a bit wearing – ‘Glastonbury, make some noooooooooise!!!’ – but it’s probably more fun if you’re there and off your face.
SOLANGE. Another female singer, colourful personality and colourful clothes. The sort of thing I’d jig along to on the day but never actively listen to again. Good pop, though.
BASTILLE. Indie reggae, anyone? So far, the only act that don’t sound like something else that’s been done better. Verging on Muse, but I prefer this lot. Plus points for a song about Twin Peaks.
RIZZLE KICKS. Funny and infectious. Remind me of a 2-Tone band. The two singers are all over the stage and the other members of the band, covering the trumpet player’s head with a t-shirt. On the strength of ‘Mama Do the Hump’, the one song shown, I’d buy the album and go and see them.
DIZZEE RASCAL. Rap has never done it for me, I’m afraid, but just as I was thinking Mr Rascal would be better off in a smaller, sweaty indoor venue, he suddenly becomes a convincing stadium act on ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’. He really soars when it gets dark, helped by a good light show and a virtual duet with Robbie Williams.
DAUGHTER (acoustic). Shades of Cowboy Junkies and the Cocteau Twins. Clever and dark lyrics: ‘If you’re in love you’re the lucky one/As most of us are bitter about someone.’ As the BBC3 presenter pointed out, Daughter could be Your New Favourite Band.
MILES KANE. The new Weller. Sharp mod stylings and a Union Flag tunic. Love it. I’d buy the album (albums?). He looks like a star already.
Over to BBC2 and the presenting duo for grown ups, Mark Radcliffe and Lauren Laverne. Oh, Lauren. If only things had been different…
JOHN NEWMAN (acoustic). Vocally, a bit Roland Gift. Soulful. Next.
PALMA VIOLETS. Dirty guitar riffs, rowdy, but the feeling nags that they’ll be forgotten in a year’s time. Lauren: ‘They play it punk but the drummer’s obsessed with Abba.’
CHIC featuring NILE RODGERS. Immaculately dressed in white and so tight, they know how to put on a show, evidenced by the synchronised swaying of the brass section. Sadly, only one song, ‘Everybody Dance’, which Stuart Maconie described as ‘like pop music having a dream about itself.’ I wish I’d thought
of that.
ARCTIC MONKEYS. At last, a band I own CDs of. From the scruffy indie kids of
‘I Bet You look good on the Dance Floor’, they now behave like stars, though I’m slightly confused when it looks for a moment as if Alex Turner’s been replaced by David Tennant. The Monkeys belong to one of my favourite traditions in British popular music, the lineage of Weller, Elvis Costello, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker, in whose hands twisted human dramas are writ large for guitar and drums. If you will, Arctic Monkeys are now the anti-U2.
Sartorially, all of them have made what my Mum calls ‘an effort’ with no leisurewear to be seen, unlike earlier in the day. It’s pure class when Alex stops to comb his hair and full marks to the rhythm guitarist for wearing a three piece. Like the unusual but confident front man Turner now is, he’s relaxed enough to tease the audience with a snatch of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ and, with the spectators in the palm of his hand, get them to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his Mum, Penny. At the end of a furious, perfectly paced set, Miles Kane was back for the last song ‘505’ and then the Arctics were gone, job done. As Mr Radcliffe astutely remarked, ‘[I’ve] rarely seen such mastery of the main stage.’ Class.
PORTISHEAD. More leisurewear, but forgivable because it’s Portishead. You couldn’t get two more contrasting headliners than the Bristolians and Arctic Monkeys, with Portishead’s spectral soundscapes calling to mind an electronic Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s late night music, which is appropriate as it’s now gone 12am.
K.T. TUNSTALL (acoustic). Pleasant enough, but I’m tired now.
THE HORRORS. Time for bed.
FUNNIEST MOMENT OF THE DAY: When DJ Jo Whiley asked Alex Turner if his Mum was really there when the crowd sang ‘Happy Birthday’, he replied that if she hadn’t been ‘it would have been a weird lie.’

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

BFI Southbank: Colin Baker



"Snap!" The Doctor (Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker).
(Image courtesy BFI)

 BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 15 June 2013
The most controversial period in Doctor Who’s long history is given a deserved reappraisal in the June offering of the BFI’s 50th anniversary events.  
I didn’t like the Colin Baker era. Nothing against the man himself, but I thought the Sixth Doctor’s character was misconceived, his costume an absolute nadir in terms of design and, on the whole, his TV stories were like bad comic strips. I was at college in 1985 and Doctor Who suddenly seemed creaky and old fashioned, not fitting with student demos, reading the NME and going to see The Smiths. In fact, I felt Michael Grade was pretty much justified in taking the programme off for eighteen months when he did.
Nearly thirty years later and it’s the BFI’s Sixth Doctor event. Despite my view of Doctor Who in the mid ‘80s, it was pleasantly surprising to see a young girl avidly reading the Target paperback of ‘The Two Doctors’ as she waited for the screening to start, as well as overhear some other children excited about seeing the Doctor who “looks like a clown.” It seems any era of the programme can work its magic on a new audience.
The Sixth Doctor in THAT coat. (Image: BBC)
A regrettable first for this event was that it was the first time neither a companion or a Doctor has attended. Host Justin Johnson, in his customary witty way, read out an apology from companion actress Nicola Bryant, prevented from coming by commitments to the play The Trouble with Old Lovers; Colin’s absence was simply explained by a conflicting schedule. Perhaps Baker was just being tactful. Ever since his script editor Eric Saward vented his frustrations about working on Doctor Who to the magazine Starburst, the two haven’t shared a stage together. As Saward was one of today’s guests, Colin’s absence was understandable.
As actor Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon) later pointed out, watching ‘The Two Doctors’ – one of Colin Baker’s better stories – in a large audience made you realise how funny it is. (Regular attendee Samira Ahmed certainly thought so, judging by the way she was hooting throughout the screening, along with everyone else). The story is full of black comedy, and while it lacks the visual panache of ‘The Caves of Androzani’, the pleasure lies in watching some delightful performances.
John Stratton’s cannibalistic chef Shockeye is great piece of character acting, by turns amusing, risqué and menacing, while Jacqueline Pearce delivers a theatrical villainess in the Servalan-from-Blake’s 7 mould. In a story full of writer Robert Holmes’s trademark double acts, James Saxon as the foppish between-jobs actor Oscar Botcherby and Carmen Gomez as his authentically Spanish friend Anita (are they or aren’t they? Probably not) are funny and touching. Clinton Greyn and Tim Raynham, as some rather tall Sontarans, have some good moments too. The writers of ‘new Who’’s Strax have clearly taken their cue from ‘The Two Doctors’, as the story goes with the idea that the Sontarans are hilarious because they take themselves so seriously.  
Needless to say, the returning Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor and Hines as his companion Jamie are as watchable as ever. I don’t really like multi-Doctor stories, as before ‘The Two Doctors’ the writers had been hamstrung by having to write for three or five leading men, but some thought about how best to use the two protagonists has gone into Holmes’s script. The story begins with the Second Doctor and Jamie (in back and white, too), re-establishing them as central characters as they drive the story forward for the first five minutes or so. From there, the story alternates between two different time zones for the Second and Sixth Doctors until the latter comes to the aid of his earlier self on Earth. Clever stuff.   
"Arthur Daley in space", Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby).
(Image: BBC)
After episode 1, co-host Dick Fiddy introduced costume designer Graham Flynn, who joined the entertainment business after he was inspired by correspondence with the Doctor Who production team in the 1980s, “when you could actually read the names at the end of the programme.” Although Colin wasn’t present, his coat of many colours was – modelled by a clearly chuffed Mr Fiddy – and Flynn’s description of the work that went into designing and making it had me appreciating the creative process behind the haute couture a lot more, particularly as the decision to make the coat “more circus like” was made by producer John Nathan-Turner, not costume designer Pat Godfrey.
Also present and asked to the front of the auditorium was enthusiast Steven Ricks, wearing his own, very authentic replica Sixth Doctor costume, which clearly impressed Flynn. As Ricks had evidently spent a lot of money, time and effort on the outfit, it was another example of how the Colin Baker era has fired people’s imaginations. 
After the Sixth and Second Doctors had vanished into the time vortex, courtesy of the BBC/2 Entertain a clip was shown from the forthcoming second part of the documentary about BBC Television Centre. Presented by Yvette Fielding, it featured the always good value trio of Mark Strickson, Janet Fielding and Peter Davison reminiscing about their time making Doctor Who. Snippets from video tapes salvaged from Nathan-Turner’s personal archive, capturing the studio recording of the story ‘Earthshock’, were particularly memorable for showing Beryl Reid complaining about being kept waiting all day and the set falling down at a crucial moment.
Next up was the customary panel of guests, this time consisting of the impossibly young looking Hines, actor Tony Selby (Sabalom Glitz), script editor Eric Saward and visual effects designer Mike Kelt. For a period of the series that was so turbulent behind the scenes, what impressed about this quartet was their enthusiasm for Doctor Who at a time when its standing within the BBC was at its lowest ebb. Hines entertained with funny stories from the set of ‘The Two Doctors’, while Selby spoke of how astute Nathan-Turner was in spotting “Arthur Daley in space” Glitz as a character with potential, offering him a return appearance after just half a day’s filming. Saward, apologising for ranting about a complacent BBC management – which earned him a round of applause – talked about his frustration at attempting to improve the series “when you’re not getting any advice.” Kelt remained proud of the magnificent opening sequence from ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’, which looked fantastic on the big screen, highlighting it as the first Motion Control effect the BBC did. Even though, typically for Doctor Who, the Visual Effects team “pulled a lot of favours” to get it made.
The event over ran (again), a sure sign that everyone was enjoying themselves. Significantly, today’s screening has made me reappraise my attitude to mid-1980s Who, which is the great thing about this BFI season: there’s always a different perspective to think about.
Doctor Who in a nutshell, really.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

V&A David Bowie Exhibition


David Bowie is exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum,
22 March - 11 August 2013


"I was walking/Down the high street/When I heard footsteps behind me..."











"There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings." Bowie, 1995

The above quote opens the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition celebrating the career of David Robert Jones – a.k.a. Bowie – born 8 January 1947, the same day as Elvis Presley. In one of the displays, the two singers appear side by side on a 1973 magazine cover promoting “the story of rock and roll”, which, the publication believed, began with Presley’s raw rock and roll in the 1950s and ended with Bowie’s sci-fi soundscapes in the 1970s.

There’s a lot of truth in this claim. Bowie’s space rock mash up of Anthony Newley, the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, filtered through composers like Kurt Weill and sung by man who looked like he’d been beamed down from the future, was as far from rock and roll’s humble, bluesy beginnings as it was possible to get. Bowie turned pop music into an art form, using different characters, musical styles and, crucially, video to make, as he later said, “multiple readings” possible. That’s why he was the world’s most singular and sophisticated pop culture icon. Was – not is, as the V&A’s exhibition tells you at every opportunity. 

Everything has its time. That the man who wrote a song inspired by the Space Race (which in the 1960s was the very definition of cutting edge) has a retrospective in a museum at all suggests he’s now part of history. There’s nothing wrong with that, when the effect Bowie had on music, fashion and gender politics between 1969 and 1983 was so transformative and far reaching. Appropriately, the exhibition charts his odyssey as a pop cultural pioneer in a well thought out combination of concise detail, elegant staging and multi-media spectacle.

It’s exhaustingly comprehensive, beginning with Bowie’s birth in Brixton and upbringing in post-World War II Bromley and ending with his 2013 comeback album The Next Day. You can’t fault the context-heavy presentation; the opening sections illustrate the influences that shaped the young David’s creative world view, from the mental illness in his mother’s side of the family, his flirtation with Buddhism to Anthony Newley’s surreal TV vehicle The Strange World of Gurney Slade. What’s striking throughout is how focused on his art Bowie always has been. He was as meticulous designing futuristic costumes for his early band Dave and the Bowmen as he would be storyboarding the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video in 1980, and his revealing hand written notes and drawings are one of the exhibition’s highlights.

"We know Major Tom's a junkie..."
(Image: Brian Duffy)
As you wander round, you listen to a soundtrack provided through your own set of headphones, the digital player synchronizing with whichever display you approach, so you can listen to the soundtracks to the videos for ‘Starman’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, and the rather disapproving voiceover on a Nationwide report about the Ziggy Stardust tour, in your own multi-media bubble. This is particularly effective with a display of television monitors that recalls one used by the alien Newton (played by Bowie) in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Stand on the relevant square mapped out on the floor and you are switched in to the video being played on the corresponding TV, be it ‘Jump they Say’ or ‘The Stars (Are out Tonight)’. It’s an interactive jukebox that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Bowie’s stage shows.

One benefit of making the effort to get to the V&A at opening time on a Wednesday morning is avoiding the crowds. I had to go back for a second look as on the Saturday I first went, it was so packed that it wasn’t possible to look at everything properly. This was particularly the case with the room showcasing Bowie’s Berlin period at 155 Haupstrasse and his collaborations with Brian Eno. Full of people patiently shuffling past the exhibits, you got no sense of how the displays fitted together. With the right amount of visitors, you could appreciate how the graphics showing Bowie’s creative map of Berlin integrated with a geographical map of the city, as well as how the ambient electronica of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger was inspired by the brooding monochrome streets of the frontline in the Cold War.

The endearing thing about Bowie is that when he does put a foot wrong he does it spectacularly, and the exhibition doesn’t shy away from that. Exhibit A: his 1969 short film The Mask. In an attempt to tell a story through mime, his awkward attempt to be the new Lindsay Kemp immediately calls to mind Kenny Everett’s hopeless comedy mime artist from his television show. Exhibit B: whoever compiled the clips for the room showcasing the Thin White Duke’s adventures on the silver screen was clearly struggling. Bowie playing Andy Warhol in a white wig in Basquiat looks just like David Bowie playing Andy Warhol in a white wig, and in the scene chosen from Labyrinth, he delivers a self parody that would make Stella Street’s ersatz Bowie Phil Cornwell proud. In The Prestige, the starman offers a Belgian accent via Bromley and Inspector Clouseau.

"Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers..."
(Image: Brian Duffy)
For me, the exhibition all made sense in the last-but-one-room, where tiered platforms of Bowie’s stage costumes are overlaid with huge gauze screens showing live footage. I was literally rooted to the spot and felt a chill down my spine at two spectacular, defining sequences. The first was from Top of the Pops in 1973 and featured a live version of ‘The Jean Genie’. Firstly, in those days playing live on the BBC’s premier pop show was virtually unheard of; secondly, seeing four gender-blurring sci-fi dandies bashing out proto punk riffs, to an audience seemingly made up of wide-eyed, innocent 16 year-olds, underlined how much of a gulf there was between Bowie’s aesthetic vision and the moribund England of the early 1970s. It was particularly effective when the costumes behind the screen were back-lit in a random sequence to ‘The Jean Genie’’s strutting beat; with the video and the music, this display summed up what a towering, original presence Bowie was.

The second sequence brings us back to how powerful the idea of multiple readings can be. I missed the opening credits for the film of Bowie’s performing ‘Heroes’ with a no-frills stage set and large backing band at some point in the 2000s. As the song built and built, the camera kept cutting to the audience to show, unusually, spectators mainly made up New York police and fire-fighters. With a shock I suddenly realised that the performance was from a benefit show put on for the emergency crews who attended 9/11. With that knowledge, ‘Heroes’ becomes a completely different song, but the lyrics fitted the circumstances perfectly. It says a lot about Bowie the man that he would do something as emotive as this while turning down the offer to turn the song into an obvious anthem at the 2012 Olympics. Behind all the multi-media games, he clearly has a beating and committed heart.

From there, it was into the final room for a look at the people Bowie has influenced, in a roll-call that includes Michael Clark and Kate Moss, before a browse through the V&A shop which stocks a veritable library of books about Bowie, but only his most recent album. Considering how literate his music is, perhaps that’s as it should be.

The pop and rock landscape, and the world in general to some extent, has largely been remade by the way Bowie conducted the first, trail blazing phase of his career, which is maybe why he’s not as relevant today as he once was; to coin a phase, his work here is done. He can go on releasing albums, like this year’s best-for-a-long-time The Next Day, but in doing so he’s just another veteran rock musician enjoying the dignified twilight of his vocation. Fittingly, David Bowie is reminds us why he was so important and how far, far ahead of his time he really was.

If you haven’t already been, go along to the V&A and watch that man – but avoid Saturdays if possible.

Friday, 7 June 2013

'Dr Who' resignation


Matt Smith resigns from Doctor Who, 1 June

River Song (Alex Kingston), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill),
the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). (Image: BBC)

An affectionate appraisal of the Eleventh Doctor – “the madman in a box” – whose time in the TARDIS was over all too soon.
24 of Matt Smith’s 45 Doctor Who stories – nearly half – featured young children, and the first person he met was the infant Amelia Pond. Going with the idea that each new Doctor’s personality is formed by the environment around him when he regenerates (explaining why the Tenth became a mockney geezer), it should have come as no surprise that number eleven would be a hyperactive, slightly distracted child-man, dressed, to begin with, like a little boy trying to be an adult. From his rebirth onwards, childhood would be a central theme of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, either in the way he looked at the world or the content of the stories. This Doctor could “talk baby” and we saw his cradle. One story, ‘Amy’s Choice’, even featured old age pensioners as the monsters.
In a move away from the epic movies-for-television produced by the Russell T Davies team, series 5 to 7 were a nightmarish, murky fairytale of disembodied skulls that ate people, dark nursery rhymes, carnivorous snowmen, malevolent dolls, haunted houses, living statues and, of course, “Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!” At the same time, the emotional content of the stories was some of the most mature Doctor Who had yet offered, with married companions Amy and Rory coping with tragic domestic problems, a (sexual) love interest for the Doctor, a cross-species lesbian couple, a story about manic depression and the Doctor facing up to his own mortality, as well as the living death of his two closest friends.
These extremes were embodied in Smith’s remarkable performance. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste; several people I know stopped watching, missing the manic blokeyness of David Tennant, or pining for the sage-like qualities of the earlier, older Doctors. But if you stuck with the show, you were rewarded by being privileged to witness a highly creative actor begin to blossom. Just like a child, Smith could run through several different emotional states in one sentence, leaving you with the impression that he was speaking aloud the sometimes random connections his mind was making. At other times, just like his favourite Doctor Patrick Troughton, Smith could underplay and turn on the menace and the gravitas, notably when a clone-Doctor was spawned in ‘The Rebel Flesh’ and when the genuine article visited his grave on Trenzalore in ‘The Name of the Doctor’.
He also brought the look of the Doctor back to the image us older fans knew from halcyon days. Gone were the deliberately anti-eccentric leather coats and Converse trainers, replaced from Christmas 2012 with velvet frock coats and waistcoats. It was a sign of how accepted Doctor Who had been by viewers that Executive Producer Steven Moffat and Smith could return to a style of dress that Russell T Davies had been self consciously paranoid about. And with a floppy fringe and a selection of bow ties that could be seen on contemporary catwalks, the Eleventh Doctor’s vintage haute couture surfed the fashion zeitgeist. Smith looked great
it, too.
Jenna-Louise Coleman as
the impossible girl.
(Image: BBC)
Around the eleventh man in, things weren’t always great. After a consistently good first series in 2010, the BBC began splitting Smith’s seasons in two. This decision – undertaken presumably for budgetary reasons – frustratingly affected the momentum of both Series 6 and 7, meaning that they had to launch twice. Unfortunately, the second half of both seasons contained some of the weakest episodes of their respective years, which did begin to affect the viewing figures. The repetition of the plot device of a machine going wrong in Series 6, together with one too many story resolutions based around the power of lurve, was disappointing after the carefully varied structure of earlier ‘New Who seasons. In Series 7, it looked like some of the latter stories were written after their posters had been designed first, putting spectacle before characterisation or logic.
Some of the media, notably the BBC-bashing Daily Mail, began to complain about convoluted and confusing storylines. But Doctor Who has always had its detractors and production shortcomings, and just like the best Doctors before him, even in an underwhelming story Smith was always entertaining, particularly when he was paired with the note perfect Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara (a Sarah Jane Smith in waiting if ever there was one).
An innovation I particularly liked was using the weekly or monthly gaps between episodes to show that time was passing for Smith’s incarnation, be it in visits to the aging Ponds, the Doctor’s retreat to the clouds above Victorian London, picking up companions and returning them home between adventures, or the Time Lord’s first meetings with Strax, Madame Vastra, Dorian and Nephertiti. Consequently, the Eleventh Doctor’s busy off-screen life made it feel like he’d been around for a lot longer than four television years. A neat trick, but even with this life-extending novelty Smith still left you wanting more, the greatest testimony to how good his performance was.
Good luck in Hollywood, Matt. We’re all rooting for you.