Wednesday, 31 July 2013

BFI Southbank: Sylvester McCoy

DOCTOR WHO AT 50 – THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: 'REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS'

When Daleks lurked in Shoreditch... (Image: BBC)










BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 27 August 2013


In 1988, Doctor Who was just hitting its stride again when it was cancelled a year later. Sylvester McCoy's Dalek story shows why everyone was getting excited.

Seven Doctors in and I’m happy to report that in 2013 ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, Sylvester McCoy’s entry in the BFI’s mammoth anniversary season, looks as fresh as paint. After disillusionment with Doctor Who in the mid-1980s, I’d been tentatively lured back by the freewheeling fun of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ the year before, but put off by the stumbling steps towards quality of ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Dragonfire’. I think I only watched the first episode of each of those, though I thought McCoy himself showed promise.

If anything, ‘Remembrance’ has improved with age. What’s striking is the air of confidence about the production, from the cinematic direction and pyrotechnics to the authentic early 1960s period detail. There’s very little wrong with it: the Dalek props wobble a bit on location and some of their voices don’t seem quite right. Unfortunately the incidental music is terrible, sounding at its worst like Frankie Goes To Hollywood are about to hove into view (not that there’s any wrong with FGTH – relax, don’t do it).

No one’s doing hammy ‘Doctor Who acting’, the pacing is really modern – bearing comparison with the new series – and Saturday’s screening revealed that Ben Aaronovitch’s script has cast a long shadow over the BBC Wales reboot. The scene where the Doctor talked the Black Dalek to destruction was riffed on in Rob Shearman’s Eccleston script ‘Dalek’, and an apocalyptic confrontation with Davros with the Earth as the battleground is similarly referenced in Russell T. Davies’ ‘Journey’s End’. Another link between 'Remembrance' and the 2005 revival is the always interesting special effects designer Mike Tucker, interviewed after the first episode, who worked on the 1988 serial, created the iconic Dalek Emperor for 'The Parting of the Ways' and has latterly been engaged on some of Matt Smith's stories.

Dalek meets author.
(Image: Mike Kenwood)
The guest list was as impressive as usual. K9, in the person of the affable and witty John Leeson, was interviewed before the screening started. (I had no idea he’d provided the voice of the Dalek Battle Computer in ‘Remembrance’, believing it to be courtesy of Davros actor Terry Molloy.) There was some fond reminiscing about Leeson crawling around on all fours in rehearsal with Tom Baker and his companions, creating a bond between the character of the robot dog and the regular cast. As he talked, I noticed that Mathew Waterhouse was sitting two rows in front, back from the States on a return visit. Once you’re a Doctor Who fan you’re a Doctor Who fan for life.

After the screening, Aaronovitch, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (the incendiary-inclined Ace) took to the stage in what is becoming a distinguished line of funny, charming and nostalgic interviews at these BFI events. McCoy was sporting both kilt and crutches, apologising to the audience that ‘Sylvester McCoy couldn’t make it, and has sent his father in his place.’ Recovering from a foot operation, his banter with Aldred was nevertheless as engaging as ever, moving Aaronovitch to note that when script editor Andrew Cartmel’s team of writers first saw the chemistry between the two, there was a cry of ‘Quick! Write loads of stuff!’ Dispelling the myth that the RTD regime didn’t like the Seventh Doctor’s era, Aldred revealed that it had been planned that Ace would appear in The Sarah Jane Adventures as a successful, eco-friendly business woman.

Of course, it all ended far too soon; then again, the sign of a successful event is that the audience is always left wanting more. Afterwards, there was the traditional decamp to the bar and the added fun of having my picture taken with a lovingly recreated Special Weapons Dalek.

I’ll say it again: the BFI are the only organisation doing a year-long celebration of Doctor Who in its 50th anniversary year, and they deserve much more recognition and praise for that than they’re currently getting.

See you soon on the Games Station...
 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG

HOW WRONG CAN YOU BE?
A dramatic reappraisal of the finale to Doctor Who Series 6/32.

'Have you tried download?' The Soothsayer and Holy Roman
Emperor Winston Churchill. (Image: BBC)
 
 
 
 
 

 

If it’s time to go, remember what you’re leaving.’
I hated this episode the first time around. No, hate’s too strong a word. I was so underwhelmed by it that I had no feelings about it at all, except a rather dull disappointment. Admittedly I was a bit tired and fed up when I first watched it, but after such an epic ride through Series 6/32, was this what we’d waited twelve weeks for? I thought ‘The Wedding of River Song’ was a meaningless, surrealistic jumble.
Watching it again, I suddenly realised I’d dismissed one of the best episodes made during Doctor Who’s 21st century reboot. Possibly one of the best in the history of the series.
Without listening to the words, of course it’s a meaningless surrealistic jumble. Fittingly for a series that started with the emphasis on dialogue over action, you have to pay close attention to what the characters are saying. The complex story is very skilfully, and not confusingly, woven through the discourse.
The Doctor is now The Soothsayer, so he tells Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) a story, and that story is the story of Series 6 in flashback. Cleverly, there are new scenes showing how Earth-time went into meltdown that keeps the audience engaged, as they’re learning something new and having series-long enigmas explained. What could have come across as an indigestible info dump is presented as a series of important revelations through Smith’s remarkably assured and subtle performance, and it’s amazing, watching him here, to think that he’d only been around for two years. He should have kept his hair long too.
When Special Agent Pond arrives, the storytelling changes gear and moves rapidly towards its climax. Crucially, even with the narrative gymnastics going on, the emotional character of the protagonists has been considered in some depth. Amy is the same but different, as is Rory. Most shockingly, in a moment of pure malice, little Amelia kills Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) in cold blood. It’s a sign of the maturity in Steven Moffat’s writing that she feels awful about it and later talks it through with her daughter. (It’s a bit of a shame that the implication that Amy could be just as dangerous as River was never followed up). Equally grown-up is the idea that however much you can cheat death through time travel, one day there’ll be a fatal reckoning. Here it’s touchingly conveyed through the passing of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and would be further developed in ‘The Name of the Doctor’.
Now I can recognise the context that the wildly bizarre imagery has, it’s extremely powerful. A steam train powering into a pyramid designated Area 52, a horde of the Silence hanging from the ceiling of Emperor Winston Churchill’s palace, carnivorous skulls, the screaming Edvard Munch faces of the Silence themselves… I can only marvel at the imagination that’s able to dream this stuff up. Moffat’s steampunk mash-up is one of the most stunning visual landscapes the series has ever come up with. Add to that the oddly powerful scene of the Doctor, dressed like some apocalyptic Western gunslinger, wearing ‘the face of the Devil’ while looting a crushed Dalek for its memory core and you have a truly extraordinary piece of storytelling.
The only caveat is that I’m still not entirely sure why River needed an Apollo spacesuit to kill the Doctor, apart from the fact that it conveniently hides her identity from her other self… Ah.
That aside, ‘The Wedding of River Song’ is what Doctor Who always should be: like nothing else on television.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

THE POGUES

THERE'S DEVILS ON EACH SIDE OF YOU, BOTTLES IN THEIR HANDS
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ The Pogues were the best night out in the 1980s and could bring a nostalgic tear to your eye at
the same time.
Rum, sodomy and The Clash (Image: Daily Telegraph)













And fifteen minutes later we had our first taste of whisky.
There were uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history.
The men all started telling jokes and the women they got frisky.
By 5 o’clock in the evening every bastard there was pissed.’
I first heard of The Pogues in 1985 when I wondered what the hell that awful racket was, which sounded like Irish folk music on speed, coming from my friend Mike Boles’ room as I tried to listen to Meat is Murder. The first time I sat up and took notice was with the following year’s ‘Fairytale of New York’, impressed that someone had taken the trouble to write an anti-Christmas song that still held hope for the future.
The live experience was where The Pogues really had me. On the tour supporting If I Should Fall from Grace with God, they had guest appearances from Godfather of punk Joe Strummer, Kirsty MacColl and Lynval Golding of The Specials. The party anthem ‘Fiesta’ would end with the stage covered in novelty string. Artificial snow fell as Kirsty and Dickensian front man Shane MacGowan danced in the middle of ‘Fairytale’ like two awkward lovers at the school disco. Everyone who was there was on stage for the last song, ‘A Message to You Rudi’. Walking down the escalator at Brixton tube station, the ticket machines rattled as we all sang the chorus of ‘The Wild Rover’.

My favourite album is Peace and Love. Probably not the one favoured by Pogues purists, for me it’s a diverse mixture of styles and moods and is never far from my CD player. There are songs about the White City area of London, Irish writer Christy Brown, getting pissed on the boat train and Oliver Cromwell. Sonically, it’s experimental too: witness the Jesus and Mary Chain melancholia of ‘Lorelei’ (sadly, one of the last things Kirsty recorded with them), the Velvet Underground stylings of ‘Down all the Days’ and the throbbing psychedelia of ‘Tombstone’.

The Pogues’ tales of alcohol sodden romanticism, of lives lived looking up from the gutter, were authentic as many of the band had been through that kind of life. With this background, it was ironic that just as they were becoming well known internationally, Shane’s hedonism got the better of him.

Strummer, never a man to stand by while his mates were in trouble, stepped in as front man on the 1991 autumn tour. Despite the thrill of hearing The Clash standards ‘Straight to Hell’, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and ‘I Fought the Law’ in The Pogues’ set, it was clear it was all over. Despite the collective brave face put on by the band, when Shane was sacked the soul of the band had gone with him.

The Pogues – all of them – continue to play Christmas gigs, and when they do ‘Fairytale’ it still brings the house down. They were also McNulty’s band of choice in The Wire, and there’s no higher accolade than that.

With the boys from the County Hell, there’ll always be time for one more round.

I highly recommend accordion player James Fearnley’s warts-and-all memoir, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of The Pogues (Faber and Faber, £14.99)

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

KIRSTY MacCOLL


DON'T COME THE COWBOY WITH ME,
SONNY JIM! 

My small tribute to one of the brightest stars in the pop firmament.

Kirsty in her prime. (Image: Alan Cross)

















There’s a guy works down the chip swears he’s Elvis
Just like you swore to me that you’d be true.
There’s a guy works down the chip swears he’s Elvis
Well, he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you.’

I’ve been thinking about the late Kirsty MacColl a lot lately. I saw a book her mother’s written about her in the local library and since then her Best of compilation has been a regular fixture on the Fairclough Towers play list.

Listening back to her songs, it strikes me that Kirsty’s one of the unsung heroines of 1980s pop and popular music generally. Listen to ‘There’s a Guy Works down the Chip Shop swears He’s Elvis’, ‘A New England’, ‘Don’t Come the Cowboy with me, Sonny Jim’ and ‘England 2, Columbia 0’ and you can hear a female song writing talent of the same standard as Weller, Morrissey or Billy Bragg, offering wry, witty vignettes of ordinary life that immediately strike a chord with the listener. Like the knowing, open smile she would regularly put on for photographers, her unusual, wistful vocal style was the perfect complement. Of course, she should have been a megastar, but her songs were too clever for that.

The great and the good of popular music were always queuing up to work with Kirsty. Apart from the Bragg – Kirsty recorded a wonderful cover of his ‘A New England’ – there were The Smiths, the Pogues, Robert Plant and Happy Mondays. In the world at large, she remains best known for her work with the Pogues, her Christmas duet with Shane McGowan ‘Fairytale of New York’ guaranteed to reduce grown men at their concerts to tears. In 1987 I saw the Camden troubadours on their If I Should Fall from Grace with God tour and having Kirsty, Joe Strummer and Lynval Golding from the Specials on board turned those Brixton Academy shows into real events. In fact, they were some of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. I remember a reviewer in the NME saying that it was like going to 1979’s greatest party and there’s a lot of truth in that. For her other great work with the Pogues, check out ‘Miss Otis Regrets’/’Just One of Those Things’ on the Red, Hot and Blue AIDS charity compilation and ‘Lorelei’ on fourth album Peace and Love, a duet with guitarist Philip Chevron awash in a Mary Chain-esque wall of sound.

Kirsty’s relationship with ex-hubby Steve Lillywhite, the producer of If I Should Fall from Grace with God and Peace and Love, early U2, the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds among others, was always a rocky one. I worked as a graphic designer at the Bill Smith Studio in 1989, the design company who did the graphics for her album Kite. I used to sit by the stairs up to Bill’s office on the second floor. Kirsty and Lillywhite came in one day for a meeting. After a while, rapid footsteps came thumping down the stairs and Kirsty, glumly red faced, left alone. I found out later that during the meeting, Lillywhite had declared of the photo shoot done for Kite, ‘Who designed these clothes? They’re ****ing awful!’ Kirsty replied, ‘I did!’ burst into tears and stormed out.

I think it’s gone now, but in the Phoenix Arts Club on the Charing Cross Road in London there used to be a corner of that underground bar that was devoted to Kirsty, hosting a large poster of her with that well known smile. This was the shrine for a group of Kirsty admirers who would meet on the anniversary of her death for drinks and the occasional song. Sometimes her mum would come along.

For such an idiosyncratic talent, it seemed like the perfect legacy.

And how can you not love someone who called one of her albums Electric Landlady?


Saturday, 13 July 2013

JOY DIVISION

LIFE REBUILDING

The sun’s shining, I have money coming in and on the whole I couldn’t be happier. Time to put on some Joy Division.


(Image: Factory Records)
Even on a sunny July morning, when I’ve got paying work, a mortgage and everything, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures still sounds like the end of the world. Imagine listening to it in 1979 when you were hoping to make it to your 16th birthday. I say hoping, because that year the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and Poland. In the Soviet satellite, Lech Walesa had made the moustache heroic again via his and his union Solidarity’s resistance to intimidation from the Kremlin. There was sabre rattling in Washington and the Cold War was warming up. Against that international background, Ian Curtis sounded like a man in a one-way conversation with a planet going to hell, rather than the self-involved depressive of popular myth.

There really had been no one like them before. The closest equivalent musically was Bowie’s Brian Eno trilogy of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, but Curtis, bassist Peter Hook, guitar/keyboard player Bernard Albrecht (later Sumner) and drummer Stephen Morris seemed to spring, complete and iconoclastic, out of nowhere. ‘Atmosphere’, a beautiful sculpture of glacial audio, does sound like the Funeral March rewritten and orchestrated by Eno, but it didn’t then and it doesn’t now seem possible for men so young to have made music of such grandeur, clarity and sophistication. When I was in my late teens, all I was worried about was getting off with Jane Mitson.

Joy Division grew out of punk but they were anti-punk. There were no rabble-rousing anthems and they looked Civil Service dull – shirts, ties and sensible trousers. But track down the clips of them live on BBC2’s yoof programme Something Else and you’ll see a truly remarkable live act with an electrifying front man. Morris’s beats sound like computerised drums (which would become popular in the 1980s) but they aren’t. Typically for such a wayward genius, producer Martin Hannett’s production style makes the drumming sound like an instrument that was about to be invented. Built around the drums and bass, Joy Division’s sound is mechanically hypnotic.

By all accounts, Michael Winterbottom’s riotous film 24 Hour Party People is the closest we’re likely to get to the real Ian Curtis. Here we see a young guy who was aggressively arrogant – famously calling Tony Wilson ‘a cunt’ to his face – loved his music (perhaps too much) and, unlike the rest of the band, seemed overwhelmed and strangely disappointed by the prospect of imminent success. The impression the film gives is that he thought it was all too easy and that there had to be a catch somewhere. Sean Harris, who played him, might not resemble Curtis as much as Sam Riley in Anton Corbjin’s Control, but he had the edge in conveying the fragility and complexity of a great artist. Incidentally, one of the best things in 24 Party People is a clip from Corbjin’s video for ‘Atmosphere’ where hooded figures slowly carry a huge portrait of Ian across a desolate beach. It has me in tears every time.

One thing you’re never going to do with Joy Division is stumble in at 2.30am in the morning after a few ales, as I did a couple of days ago, and decide it’s time to crank up ‘Atmosphere’ REALLY LOUD. There are other bands for that: The Cult, Thin Lizzy – ‘Waiting for an Alibi’ and ‘Rosalie’, naturally – Suede, the Jesus and Mary Chain, The Who, Manic Street Preachers… Their stuff is head-in-the-speaker bin fantastic, ideal for lying down on the floor and doing air guitar solos. But Joy Division… their music has its own rules. Putting ‘Atmosphere’ on during a sunny July day, when you’re feeling very optimistic, is sometimes the best, and most humbling, way to enjoy them. Everyone needs an angsty catharsis from time to time, even an angst-free middle-aged man, and Joy Division will always be the ideal medium for that.

Let’s share a drink and step outside.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

'THE RETURNED', 9pm Channel 4, 7 July 2013

LES REVENANTS

Twin Peaks with garlic instead of cherry pie, Channel 4’s
The Returned
looks like it will reward audience loyalty.

Miaow! (Image courtesy Channel 4)
I’d heard good word of mouth on this enigmatic French series and read some intriguing pieces on it in the press. After the tennis on Sunday, which was so emotionally tense I nearly chewed my knuckles off, I thought as a gentle come down I should give this superior-sounding gallic import a go, 3 episodes in or not.

What did I see? ‘Seven years earlier’, an on screen caption told me, someone – ‘Victor’ (?) – is hunting a man he’s kept locked up. A girl in a fetish mask who brings to mind Catwoman is kidnapped, injured and left at a hospital. There’s a lot of night driving under neon lights. Victor (?) gets his man, drives out to the countryside (at night) and digs a big hole. The distressed killer (?) starts wailing ‘Mum! Mum!’ until Victor (?) hits him with a spade. Cut to Victor (?) smoothing over a filled-in hole.

So far, so Blood Simple. Things get more intriguing when the opening titles announce that Welsh indie rock innovators Mogwai have done all the music. A definite plus.

In the present day, it looks like we’re in the beautiful wide open spaces of rural France. A girl who might or might not be joking about being a vampire fancies the obligatory not-interested (yet) high school hottie. A small boy with a remarkably mature face, looking like a shrunken man, ‘sees’ people who aren’t there (I think). In the local lake, there’s a submerged village and the church steeple can be seen at low tide (tide? In a lake?) In a brilliantly photographed sequence, frogmen investigate the ruins and find an assortment of dead animals floating in the water – deer, a fox, dogs (?) Eerie and striking. Appropriately for this kind of thing, a teacher is having a romantic liaison with the
local cop. 

Because of the excitement of the tennis, I have to admit I nodded off halfway through. No matter: I’m in. The third episode of The Returned (better as the much more gothic sounding Les Revenants in French) was atmospheric, weird and intriguing. It’s refreshing that it’s being shown on a major terrestrial channel and that it’s not exclusively about a moody, middle-aged police loner.

In a nutshell, Twin Peaks with garlic. Hit!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

'THE AVENGERS' and Diana Rigg

PURE CLASS

Moét and Chandon, red carnations, mad scientists and kinky boots. It can only be one of the best TV series ever made.

Lady Diana. (Image courtesy Studio Canal)
I bloody love The Avengers. I was lucky enough to go to the 50th Anniversary event celebrating the 1960s series at Chichester University on 25 and 26 June 2011. It was the best TV-themed event I’ve ever been to. A beautiful English town in the middle of summer, Chichester was the perfect setting. Umbrellas hung from trees on the campus and, having made the effort with a tailored three piece suit, bowler hat and brolly, I got to play John Steed, stylishly posing in the background of an interview with Honor Blackman for the local BBC news. Only a cameo, but it was huge fun.

Master of ceremonies Paul O’Grady arrived in a helicopter with Linda Thorson, who played ingénue secret agent Tara King. The chopper was parked on a playing field for the whole weekend. O’Grady and Thorson both left in it on Sunday night, no doubt toasting each other with glasses of champagne as the helicopter rose into the air.

So what makes The Avengers so utterly, completely brilliant that just hearing that wonderful, jazzy theme music always puts a smile on my face? I think it’s because, particularly with the Diana Rigg episodes, the series is how we like to think the ‘60s were, even though we know they really weren’t. However, The Avengers IS the story of the ‘60s as it was constantly changing, gradually morphing from a gritty, film noir crime thriller into a colourful, syncopated comic strip celebrating the best things in English culture: fine clothes, cups of tea and lovably eccentric people. The series’ constant evolution also makes it very Mod.

The mention of Mod is appropriate as The Avengers is very musical. There’s a sparkling rhythm to the way Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) converse and interact with each other. They move the action along fluidly, taking in great and not so great jokes – ‘counter, counter, counter intelligence,’ ‘top, top, top secret’ – in a way you don’t expect from an adventure series.

ITV’s filmed action shows were the first programmes to be made in colour in the UK. In some of them, like The Saint, you can tell it’s early days as the lighting is really flat. On The Avengers (and its closest sibling The Prisoner) the cinematography has been approached as if the director is making a feature film. As I’ve often said, in The Prisoner and The Avengers we have nothing less than cinema for the small screen.


Paul O'Grady, myself and Linda Thorson at
The Avengers
50th Anniversary event in 2011.
(Image courtesy Chichester University)
Sir Patrick Macnee, wearer of the Steed bowler, is an underrated man. Producer of the highly regarded documentary series about Winston Churchill for Canadian television as well as an actor, in the early episodes of The Avengers recorded on videotape his remarkable gifts, as a performer who can save a scene when his fellow actors forget their dialogue, are plain to see. By 1967, his double act with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel was a delightful example of light humour, a couple whose company you wanted to enjoy who chould have been in a sophisticated screwball comedy.

Diana Rigg is FABULOUS as Mrs Peel. Moving like a dancer in those chic catsuits, she’s either vaguely amused by the effect she has on men or oblivious to it all together, viewing everything with the same adorable half smile and ironic detachment. In the episode ‘The Bird Who Knew Too Much’, after throwing a villain off the diving board into a swimming pool, Mrs Peel herself dives in, sparing the time to perform a graceful somersault in mid air. Pure class.

And she’s still being classy today. In this year’s series of Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss’s script ‘The Crimson Horror’ was so obviously The Victorian Avengers. Diana got the point of the script straight away, changing sides to deliver a Northern villainess, Mrs Gillyflower, who was an Avengers bad guy all the way down to her buttoned-up boots. In the wrong hands, the alien force she controls could destroy the world, the Doctor tells her. ‘You know what these are?’ she says, showing him her open palms. ‘The wrong ‘ands.’

Sublime.

At the Chichester Celebration, I asked Brian Clemens, producer of the filmed episodes, about what Steed’s feminist sidekicks were like to work with. ‘Honor [Blackman] was always very professional,’ he said. ‘Diana was a cow. She’s still a cow.’

Ah, well. You can’t have everything. Patrick McGoohan could be a bastard too.

99% flawlessness will do.


Friday, 5 July 2013

BFI Southbank: William Hartnell

DOCTOR WHO AT 50 - THE FIRST DOCTOR:

'AN UNEARTHLY CHILD'

 

The BFI's stunning artwork for their 50th anniversary season. (Courtesy BFI)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 12 January 2013

 













The British Film Institute’s year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary gets under way with the screening of the very first story.

If ever you wanted an indication of what a multi-media institution Doctor Who has now become, it was to be found in the three film crews and various radio and internet journalists covering the British Film Institute Southbank’s first Doctor Who at 50 event. According to BFI staff, they could have sold it out four times over, and February’s presentation of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ is already booked up. For a long time enthusiast this is brilliant; almost unbelievable, when you think how far the programme fell from favour in the 1980s. I couldn’t help wondering whether the series would be getting this much media attention if it hadn’t come back 2005, but it’s a safe bet that the loyalty and affection Doctor Who generates would still have seen the NFT1 auditorium packed to capacity for the screening of the first story, ‘An Unearthly Child’.            

First up, in front of the BFI’s stylish montage of all the Doctors projected on the big screen, presenters Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson welcomed heavy-hitters Mark Gatiss and Executive Producer Caroline Skinner, who informed the audience that on behalf of the BBC it was a “privilege and a pleasure” to be associated with the BFI’s year-long festival and she was “utterly delighted” with the many “exciting treats in store” to be revealed throughout the year.

Hosts Justin Johnson and Dick Fiddy
with guest Mark Gatiss.
(Courtesy BFI)
Steven Moffat would have loved to have been there, Skinnner said, but he was chained to his computer writing something-or-other that was going to be seen in November. Mark Gatiss admitted he should have been chained to his, but revealed that he was about to complete the final draft of An Adventure in Space and Time, the much anticipated drama about the origins of the show. Amusingly, considering the various titles applied to Doctor Who’s first story, Gatiss had seen his drama given three different titles on BBC documentation; nothing changes, it seems. Concluding with a short speech, he stated that whatever the first story was called, “it’s special, intangible and magical – [and] still brilliant.”

As the titles for ‘An Unearthly Child’ rolled, I remembered the first time I’d seen it, at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s second convention in 1978, when I was 14. There’s been a helluva lot of water under the bridge since then, both for me and the series. But that’s part of the appeal of the show: for good or ill, you can map the different stages of your life through it. Watching the first episode on the big screen again 34 years later, its power hadn’t diminished a bit. The original signature tune, like nothing heard on television before or since, and the eerily expressionistic title sequence, suggest horror rather than science fiction, a stylistic theme carried through to the creepy junkyard set, foreboding incidental music and otherworldliness of Susan. And the moment William Hartnell appears as a vaguely sinister old man, he completely owns the screen.

In a break between the second and third episodes, sound designer Brian Hodgson and vision mixer Clive Doig, two men responsible for the success of Doctor Who’s initial impact as much as anyone, were asked to the front of the stage for a short interview. It was revealed that composer Ron Grainer was talked into writing the Doctor Who theme by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Desmond Briscoe, as Grainer didn’t want to do any more signature tunes. When he heard Delia Derbyshire’s remarkable realisation, he said “Jeez, Delia, did I write that?!” Her reply: “Most of it, Ron.” Doig also mentioned William Hartnell’s rather unusual ideas about a global “steel conspiracy.” (No, me neither).

After the final episodes, which were notable for the implied violence of the animal attack on the caveman Za (Derek Newark) and the actual violence of the climatic fight between him and the villainous Kal (Jeremy Young), Doctor Who’s first bad guy took the stage in the illustrious company of ‘An Unearthly Child’’s director Waris Hussein, William Hartnell’s granddaughter and biographer Jessica Carney, Season Three script editor Donald Tosh and original companion actors William Russell (Ian Chesterton) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman, the unearthly child herself).

Back together after 50 years: director Waris Hussein
with Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and William Russell (Ian
Chesterton). (Courtesy BFI)
The discussion was by turns affectionate, proud and good humoured, with Young in particular, who as far as I know hasn’t been interviewed before, proving very amusing, exclaiming to Carole Ann, “Fifty years and you haven’t changed a bit!” and revealing that his bad temperedness as Kal was exaggerated by an outbreak of sand fleas on the set. Hussein admitted to being “a reluctant recruit” at the beginning, but was convinced the story could be done by its innovative young producer, Verity Lambert. After watching his episodes on the big screen again, he professed to “being happy to be part of it”, a point elaborated on by Russell who declared unequivocally “I thought it was great... Everybody took it very seriously. We believed in it.” Ford revealed that she left the show because the character as promised to her wasn’t adhered to, while Tosh told some amusing anecdotes about the chaotic production of Doctor Who’s third series.

Touchingly, the panel were unanimous in their praise and admiration for Hartnell, with Hussein in particular praising his “dangerous and unpredictable” performance, and Carney highlighting the delight of a man known for playing hard-bitten figures being able to start with “something of a blank slate” and create a three dimensional character for children. A last question from the audience about Lambert, “the first important female producer”, brought equally unreserved praise from the assembled guests for the woman who started it all.

The event ended on a forward-looking, upbeat note when Russell and Ford were asked that if they were invited to appear in November’s anniversary special, they would agree? On their affirmative “Yes”, there was a rousing, valedictory round of applause from the auditorium.        

As the nostalgia-warmed audience filed out, I reflected that there had been a lot of love in the room for my favourite old TV show. We’ve got 11 more of these events to go, so long may it continue.

Carole Ann looks to the future?  (Courtesy BFI)