Monday, 30 May 2016

DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE 500th ISSUE EVENT, Copthorne Hotel, Windsor

Doctor Who Magazine has just reached its 500th issue. I was there at the celebratory day on Saturday 28 May.

All together now. (Image copyright: Tenth Planet)

The family had a quiet day yesterday. For Dawn and myself, this meant a duvet day eating comfort food, Facebooking and watching ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. Say what you like about Terry Nation, but he can do grim and gritty like nobody else. His tale of a World War 2-style Earth occupation by Skaro’s finest is ideally suited to atmospheric black and white… In the evening, we asked Poppy (8) if she’d like to join us – having really got our Dalek on by now – to watch ‘The Chase’. Whenever the Daleks appeared, she grinned from ear to ear, lost in her own private, happy world. As I watched her, I reflected that when the story was originally shown in 1965, I was only a year old. Dawn wasn’t born until 1969. Poppy wasn’t even a glint in someone’s eye.

I’ll always remember Saturday 28 May 2016. I was amazed and pleased to find myself a guest at the event celebrating 500 issues of Doctor Who Magazine. It was very much a rites of passage thing for me. This is going to sound very sentimental, but the mag’s been a constant companion for me ever since I cycled to my local newsagent in Lowestoft in 1979 to buy the first issue. Throughout the highs and lows of my life – romances, college, breakdowns, employment, unemployment, births, marriages and deaths – buying the publication I still call ‘the Monthly’ (it’s variously been Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly and now Magazine) has somehow kept me going. I now write for the publishing franchise that’s been extended to The Essential Doctor Who range and the annual Doctor Who Magazine Yearbooks, so Saturday was very much a childhood dream come true.

There was a significant first. Dawn and I had persuaded her daughters Poppy and Rose (16, left and bottom) to come with us. Some life-changing things have happened to me this year: as well as digging myself out of the ditch of long-term unemployment, I’ve acquired a bride-to-be and a family. For people in Doctor Who fandom who know me of old – trouser-losing antics in Swansea, ending up in Folkestone after an alcoholic night out at the Fitzroy Tavern – this might come as a surprise, but not as much as the pleasant surprise it’s been for me. To have Rose and Poppy with us at the DWM 500, seeing their new old man signing (a surprisingly large number) of autographs, and to watch them listening in rapt attention to costume designer Alexandra Tynan talking about the origins of the Cybermen… the only words I have are ‘very moving.’
The event was also a great way to catch up with people I haven’t seen for years – in one case, decades. I last saw Bill Gallagher when he was editor of the fanzine Web Planet when I wrote for it in 1982. He walked up to my signing table and asked if I remembered him; he hasn’t changed a bit. Bill’s got two children of his own now.

Great memories like that happened all day. Thanks to Marcus Hearn, I got Tom Baker producer Philip Hinchcliffe to sign my novel of Target (left), the tough cop show he made after Doctor Who. This led to me buying him a drink and chatting about his other BBC drama Private Schulz (1981), HBO and my and Mike Kenwood’s imminent Callan guide. We met Target books artist Jeff Cummins in the bar and he revealed that he’d been a huge fan of the series about an existential hitman. So much so, that in the 1970s he’d drawn a portrait of Edward Woodward, who played Callan, and sent it to him. Ted duly signed it and sent to back. Of course, our next question was – hearts in mouth – did he still have it? Watch this space...

Towards the end of the day, all the guests crammed into the photo studio to have our photograph taken for posterity. I was sandwiched between Rob Shearman, writer of the TV episode ‘Dalek’ and all round nice guy, and David J. Howe, owner of Telos Publishing and all round nice guy. I don’t think it gets much better than that.

Dawn took Poppy and Rose home in the afternoon as they were a bit tired – after all, we’d had the poor dears up since 6am so we could get to Slough for 10. In their absence, I enjoyed myself to the point I ended up on the wrong train, and had to spend what was left of the night kipping on the pavement outside an Oxford college. Considering the amount of personal nostalgia generated by the event, a confused alcoholic detour on the way home was somehow appropriate (if not inevitable).

Which brings me back to watching ‘The Chase’ with Dawn and Poppy. The little munchkin is very proud of the man she now calls Dad, to the point where she delights in cuddling up to watch the great William Hartnell do his stuff.

God bless Doctor Who. And God bless Doctor Who Magazine.

Carpe diem.

Many thanks to Tom Spilsbury, Peter Ware and Emily Cook at DWM for such a grand day out.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

BONFIRE NIGHT reappraisal

Originally issued to hostile reviews in 2002, Ostara Publishing's annotated edition of James Mitchell's fifth and final Callan novel sheds moving light on the Geordie writer's last days, explaining why Bonfire Night was so radically different.

Callan and Lonely: their last bow. (Image copyright; ATV)

For followers of the existential Secret Service hitman David Callan, his petty thief confidante Lonely and the shadowy government department known as ‘the Section’, Bonfire Night isn’t an easy book to like. That’s because it’s not an easy book to read. In place of the lean, mean, minimalist prose of James Mitchell’s earlier Callan novels A Magnum for Schneider, Russian Roulette, Death and Bright Water and Smear Job, not to mention the multitude of short stories and ground breaking scripts for the Callan TV series (1967-1972), Bonfire Night reads like a wish-fulfilment fantasy written by a man in a frantic hurry.

Twenty-seven years separate Bonfire Night and Smear Job, which ended with Callan and Lonely setting up a security business together. The Callan film, despite poor distribution, had been a hit with the critics in 1974 and Mitchell was about to begin work on his second seminal TV series, When the Boat Comes In (1976-1981). Starring former Likely Lad James Bolam as working class opportunist Jack Ford, living on Tyneside in the austere 1920s – and Bolam was an absolute revelation in the part – the TV drama and its attendant novels replaced Callan and the Section on Mitchell’s notepads (he never used a typewriter). By 2002, Mitchell was elderly, retired and living near his family back in his native North East.

The beauty of Ostara’s 2016 edition is the frank and moving Introduction by James’ son Peter. The family situation he describes sheds informative light on the bizarre story in the novel, which remodels Lonely as a computer genius and finds ex-Major Callan a millionaire businessman and the head of a surrogate family living on a vast estate in Andalusia in Spain. Every year there’s a ritual bonfire on Callan’s estate, which gives Mitchell’s last book about him its title.

By the early 2000s, Mitchell was not in good health. Peter movingly and honestly writes:

‘Like many of his television and crime writer contemporaries… [he had] alcoholic liver disease. He’d had trembling hands ever since I could remember – especially in the mornings when the porcelain coffee mug would wobble precariously between table top and lips while Dad hid his embarrassment behind the ‘Daily Mail’. Alcoholism is a chronic illness – it’s unusual for it to strike suddenly – so there were a few heavy hints dropped before a command of total cessation was forthcoming from the medical professionals…
‘Years later, after the death of his second wife Delia in 1990, he collapsed in the shower and drifted off into a coma for six weeks. That was down to the booze and he left hospital with dire warnings of serious consequences ringing in his ears. But once he got back on his feet, he reverted to type inside a fortnight. What followed were several bouts of abdominal swelling (ascites) during which he was again admitted into hospital to have litres of fluid drained from his swollen belly.
‘It was after the last of these in 2000 that he was told he had cirrhosis. “Stop drinking altogether, or die.” This plain and simple message was received loud and clear. So he stopped. James Mitchell, raconteur, bon viveur, scribbler and sot – ceased drinking alcohol on that day. There was no re-hab, no therapy, no advice, no support. He simply put the glass down and waited for something to happen. Something did happen. He began to suffer from depression.’
Peter and his father hadn’t always had a good relationship: ‘The miners’ strike in 1984 did for us in a big way. We used to have many a row, and when it came to that strike, he’s very successful, he’s living in Marloes Road in [London] W8 and I’m covering the miner’s strike and seeing a completely different world: when these worlds collided, there were sparks. I’m seeing really starving people in the 1980s, and he’s telling me that their children should be taken away from them at birth because they’re not fit to be parents. I was straight off the picket line and witnessed all these coppers from London, like the [Special Patrol Group] coming up to County Durham, waving their pay slips at the miners. It was really nasty, it was all controlled and it was really political. It was an English Civil War and typically English because it was shrouded. As a result of all that, there were four years where I didn’t speak to my father at all: nothing.’*

By 2002 Mitchell Senior relied heavily on his son and Bonfire Night was part of the healing process between them. Peter suggested to his father that losing himself in writing about some of his best loved characters might help to alleviate his depression. Peter was right: ‘He’d found a purpose in life… he was using his imagination and generally feeling less sorry for himself. Not only that, there was just a hint of the re-emergence of the James that he had been before: the old-fashioned gentleman, the engaging charmer, the incisive wit, the storyteller.’

So in Bonfire Night, the final Callan novel, the chippy, working class loner gives a final, valedictory V-sign to the establishment that exploited him. Significantly, the Section is now so impoverished that it has to plead for the help of its rich ex-assassin. For once, Callan goes back to the Section on his and Lonely’s own terms.

‘Is “Bonfire Night” a good book? As far as my Dad was concerned it was a hugely influential work. Temporarily it restored some pride and self-esteem, gave him a purpose in life and allowed him to bask in his wonderful, loving, glorious past.’
Buy the annotated edition of Bonfire Night for a poignant insight into the final act in the life of one of the UK’s great thriller writers.

* From ‘The Callan File: The Definitive Guide’, to be published later in 2016 by Miwk Publishing

Saturday, 21 May 2016


This week, it's been twenty years since actor, showman and raconteur
Jon Pertwee died. When I was little, for me he was Dr. Who.

Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier) and Katy Manning
(Jo Grant) with young admirers at the BBC TV Special Effects
Exhibition in December 1972. (Image copyright: Getty)

‘There’s a Starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.’

The cloak, the velvet jacket, the white hair, the rich voice, the yellow car, the Venusian karate, UNIT... how could a 6 year-old not fall in love with Jon Pertwee as Dr. Who?

I was at primary school throughout Jon’s run. Funnily enough, when he left in 1974, I left to go to middle school, just in time for Tom Baker’s ragamuffin intellectual, who turned out to be the ideal companion through adolescence. But the early 1970s was a special time Doctor Who-wise: everyone was of an age when they loved the programme unconditionally. We’d run around the playground being Sea Devils, Ice Warriors and, of course, Daleks.

There’s a marvellous arc to the Third Doctor’s character. Initially avuncular, by the 1971 season he’s titanically pissed off at being stuck on Earth, assaulting Captain Yates and short-tempered with establishment figures like Professor Kettering and Chinn. By the next year, he’s no longer critical of the Brigadier’s methods; at the end of the next, his hearts are broken when Jo leaves UNIT. Completing the transformation from exile to defender of the Earth, in his final moments he tells Sarah Jane and the Brigadier that ‘the TARDIS brought me home.’ No wonder I cried when he died.

Jon’s reign was the first time I went to London, at the tender age of 8. I’d entered the 1972 Win-A-Dalek Radio Times Competition but hadn’t got as far as getting one of the winners’ certificates with its stylish Frank Bellamy illustration. Nevertheless, when I found out there was going to be a display of competition art and Doctor Who monsters at Kensington’s Science Museum, Mum and Dad indulgently organised a minibus for me and my friends to come down from Lowestoft to see the BBC Special Effects and Tutankhamen exhibitions. I can still remember Dad trying to zap the Daleks with the controls in the TARDIS you were allowed to operate (the console was barricaded off, retaining the mystique). All these years later, I’ve still got the ‘TARDIS Commander’ badge.

Pertwee comics were brilliant, too. Countdown/TV Action always seemed to have Doctor Who on the cover, perhaps because artist Gerry Haylock did a fantastic likeness of Jon.

Roll the moviola to 1978 and the second Doctor Who Appreciation Society convention. I returned to Kensington six years after my first visit to see Jon Pertwee walking down the steps of the lecture hall, haloed by flash bulbs and loving it. It was Tom Baker’s comment from Whose Doctor Who, ‘Jon’s like a tall light bulb – he glitters’ to the life. It brings a tear to the eye now to remember that when he took to the stage, he knelt down and bowed to the assembled fans. That guy knew how to play an audience.

For me, his best ever convention appearance – and the last time I saw him in person – was at one of the DWAS Panopticons in Coventry in the 1990s, when he talked engagingly and amusingly about his long career. Obviously lashed up to a few large vodka and tonics in the green room beforehand, his anecdotes took a risqué turn with a story about his posterior becoming stuck to a toilet seat. Said toilet seat was unscrewed and an embarrassed Pertwee retired to bed face-down while his very gay GP was summoned. ‘Have you ever seen anything like this before?’ Jon sheepishly inquired. The doctor replied without hesitation, ‘Yes, but never framed.’

Importantly, there isn’t a bad Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story. OK, if you’re going to be harsh and cynical and if you have to choose one with an arm twisted up behind your back, it’s probably ‘The Monster of Peladon’, but by the standards of Jon’s era, ‘bad’ still means committed performances, great film sequences and a galloping narrative pace. Even at this late stage, everyone involved still cared. We’re not talking ‘Timelash’ here.

My favourite of Jon's Doctor Who series is his first. Watching it now, it’s very striking how there’s no mention at all of his Time Lord background. If you’d never seen ‘The War Games’, you’d think the Doctor was an evolved super scientist who’d invented a time and space machine that’s broken down. Being more than human makes him an outsider among them, and in the British establishment UNIT works for: in short, he’s a man who fell to Earth. I still wonder if producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant and script editor Terrance Dicks had read Walter Tevis’ novel (which, curiously enough, was first published in 1963).

Postscript: I was never a huge fan of Jon’s Worzel Gummidge, but I could see how good it was. The scarecrows, ship’s figureheads and Aunt Sallys come-to-life are like grown up, selfish children, and that’s brilliant material for actors to work with – just look at Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills (1979). Pertwee’s commitment to the lead role is evident in every frame and shows what a talented  and underrated  character actor he was.

‘There’s a Starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.’

Dear Jon – you did.

Monday, 16 May 2016


New writing commissions, moving in with Dawn, being a Dad and getting married. And it's only May.

In the art room, May 2016. (Image: Dawn Tomlin)

Last Wednesday I was ambling through Soho, got caught in a downpour and ducked into a nearby restaurant. There I had an early lunch (an omelette), checked up on emails through my laptop and read the booklet for a new Doors re-release I’d bought in Sister Ray. The latte was particularly good. When the rain stopped, I searched out presents for my step-daughter, who turned 16 last Thursday.

Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? I suppose it is in the broad scheme of things. But if you rewind a year, the contented emotional place I’m now in was almost inconceivable due to my depressed state of mind.

As regular readers will know, back then I was being slowly ground down by the monotony of daily job applications slaved to the Department of Work and Pensions, which you have to do to get the pittance they expect you to live on. Nice meals in Soho were the stuff of increasingly distant memories, as was spending a few recreational quid in Sister Ray or the Vintage Magazine Shop.

Today, being in a good mental place isn’t solely because I’ve got myself working again on my own initiative, after all the advice and restart courses of the DWP yielded precisely nothing. The fact is, too many good people have died this year. 2016 began appallingly with the death of David Bowie, my generation’s John Lennon. Then there was Prince (57, only six years older than me), Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Guy Hamilton, Anthony Valentine, Sylvia Anderson… on a personal level, several people in my life have either passed on or will be soon, all of them too young. After a boozy night out in the Sherlock Holmes – something else that’s been a rare pleasure over the last three or so years – I staggered back to my partner Dawn’s place, where I’m now living. We talked all night and at the end of that night I asked her to marry me.

A year ago I wouldn’t ever have ever considered tying the knot again. True, turning 52 later this month and everything I’ve discussed above was playing on my mind, but what finally made my mind up to ask for Dawn’s hand was the lady herself. She doesn’t have a cynical bone in her body, always looks for the best in people – even when the evidence to the contrary is stacking up so much it’s about to topple over – and has a wonderfully endearing joy in everything. I took her to her first Doctor Who convention the other week, and she was bouncing around like a wide eyed twelve year-old at the prospect of all the autographs she was able to get from people who’d worked on the programme! I remember that feeling from years ago and seeing Dawn so happy made it real again. It’s a good thing to have back in your life.

Not bad, Rob.
(Image: Robert Fairclough)
Then there’s Rose and Poppy, Dawn’s children by her first marriage. Rose is 16 and her life is just about to start. Poppy is 9 and has always longed for a Dad (her ‘DNA Dad’, as she calls him, doesn’t count for reasons I won’t go into here) and has fought her own battle to come back from a dark place: she was bullied so much at school that Dawn decided to home-school her for two years. I believe that children respond instinctively to the goodness – or otherwise – in people but, even so, when Poppy started calling me ‘Dad’ and held my hand on a day trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, I was more than a little disconcerted. Now Poppy’s back in school, loving it and I was overcome when she bought me a small trophy cup with the engraving ‘World’s Best Dad Ever: Robert Fairclough’. We all feel so natural together as a family that making us one officially seemed like the most obvious, not to mention joyous, thing to do.

I was never sure I wanted to be a father and, at 51, thought it was too late. Because of my mental health issues, at the back of mind was always the feeling I wouldn’t be able to cope with children and I’d let them down. However, Dawn says I’m a natural and ‘the house’ none of them wanted to stay in for long is finally a home. She prefers being there now to the Centrepieces Mental Health Arts Project that took up (too) much of her time.

What convinced me I could be a good father was an outing a couple of weeks ago to the Cartoon Museum in London. It's currently hosting an exhibition of illustrated Doctor Who book covers – extended to the end of June, which indicates how popular it’s been. I grew up with those novelisations as, in a world without DVDs, they were the closest you could get to watching Doctor Who stories again. Even before the books appeared in 1973, I remember Dad found me the hardback of Bill Strutton’s Doctor Who and the Zarbi, first published in 1965, in Gorleston Library. I loved that book and would gaze at the marvellous John Wood illustrations in fascination. The planet of Vortis with its giant ants and man-sized butterflies was a world I longed to be a part of.

Happy famiies. (Image: Mike Kenwood)
Anyway, in the 1970s the company Target republished Zarbi in their first year of releases with a fantastic new cover by Chris Achilleos, giving me another reason to love the book. Strutton’s Tolkien-esque universe was a formative part of my childhood and helped to give me a love of reading generally. I wanted to pass this enthusiasm on to Poppy, so during our visit to the Cartoon Museum, I bought her a reprint of Doctor Who and the Zarbi and wrote this on the title page: ‘To Poppy – My favourite “Dr. Who” book, from me to you. All my love, Dad. XXX’

Maybe this parenting lark isn’t so hard after all.

It’s easy to say that life’s worth living again and I’m happier than I’ve ever been, but what’s really amazed me over the last few weeks is how fast your life can change. In my case, when positive things started to happen, another wouldn’t be far behind. Today I’m sitting typing this in our shared art room, The Stranglers, Bowie and Joy Division thundering away on the stereo behind me, as I think about designing The Callan File, the writing commissions I have on for Doctor Who Magazine and SFX, administering the Centrepieces blog, planning the wedding...

I’m 51 and about to get married. Time, indeed, to seize the day.