Cale-Ethiopian Road



The Caledonian Road in Islington, London, runs north from near the side of King’s Cross Station.  It takes its Scottish-themed name from the fact that it was once the location of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which housed the children of poor Scottish migrants to the metropolis.  Nowadays, though, the street feels a lot more Ethiopian than Scottish.  The last time I checked, there were at least five Ethiopian restaurants operating on or near to the street: the Addis Ababa at numbers 40-42, the Marathon at 193a, the Merkato at 196, the Menelik at 277 and the Kobeb at 45 Roman Way, just off the street’s northern end.  I’ve eaten in three of them and they’ve all been different shades of ‘very good’.



If you haven’t yet eaten Ethiopian food (and if you like your cuisine to be spicy), you should track down your nearest Ethiopian restaurant and eat some immediately.  It’s delicious – its the best food on offer in the Horn of Africa, if not in all eastern Africa.  Kai-wat, doro-wat, kitfo, tibs…  The very thought of such delicacies makes me dribble at the mouth, just as Homer Simpson does when he thinks of Duff beer.


Talking of which, Ethiopian beer isn’t bad, although the expatriate Ethiopian restaurants seem only to have St George, which I think is one of the blander options.



St George is as important a figure in Ethiopia as he is in England and his image is everywhere there, often depicted slaying the dragon – as he is on the St George beer labels.  In Ethiopia, though, St George is always shown to be black.  I find that ironic, considering the English far-right’s fixation with the saint.  (There was at one time a fascist organisation called the League of Saint George, and the St George’s cross has often been brandished at marches by the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front.)


Have I got Whos for you 3


(c) Royal Mail


In the early 2000s Russell T. Davies was well-respected in television circles as the writer of acclaimed dramas like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming.  However, Davies had a guilty secret.  He’d grown up an avid Doctor Who fan.  Indeed, since the show had left the airwaves in 1989, he’d been one of the many contributors to the spin-off media – comics, audio adventures, novels – that’d proliferated so that fans could get their continuing fix of the show.  Now that he carried weight within the BBC, what Davies wanted more than anything was to bring the show back to television.


In 2005 Davies got his wish and a new-look Doctor Who was launched with him as show-runner and chief scriptwriter.  I have mixed feelings about what Davies did, but his basic approach was sensible.  Aware that he needed to craft a show that appealed not just to old-time fans – most of whom had acquired some grey hairs by then – but to new viewers and especially to kids, he introduced the main human character first, Rose Tyler, and told the story through her eyes.  (Playing Rose was former pop singer Billie Piper, who despite many people’s low expectations turned out to have acting talent.)  As Rose got to know the mysterious Doctor, his character was gradually sketched in.  Thus, Davies avoided dumping too much back-story on his audiences too quickly, which had been the undoing of the Paul McGann TV movie nine years earlier.


In fact, Davies reduced that back-story by getting rid of the Time Lords.  It transpired that they’d fought a cataclysmic ‘Time War’ against the Daleks, which had ended with both species’ destruction.  Predictably, though, the Doctor and Rose soon discovered that not all the Daleks were extinct.  Meanwhile, the show’s other old monsters and enemies, such as the Cybermen and the Master, were brought back only gradually and were given a 21st-century makeover.  In the case of the Master, he became a manic villain in the style of Batman’s Joker, who wasn’t averse to torturing the Doctor whilst playing, loudly, songs by the Scissor Sisters – the bastard.


To play the Doctor, Davies brought in Christopher Ecclestone, who’d been in The Second Coming and in a number of films, including Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, in which he’d appeared alongside the future Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan Macgregor.  (If a little kid ever asks you the question, “If Doctor Who had a fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi, who would win?” you could show him or her the last ten minutes of Shallow Grave.  Actually, on second thoughts, don’t.  It’s a bit unpleasant.)  This new Doctor, the ninth one, was psychologically scarred by Time War survivor’s guilt, something Ecclestone wore well on his normal acting persona, which is pretty intense and morose.  In fact, speaking with his natural, working-class Salford accent, Ecclestone’s Doctor could be described as the Ken Loach Doctor.  He certainly seemed to have been through the wringer as much as the average hero of a Loach movie.


I was less enamoured with some of Davies’s other decisions, especially his insistence on peppering his scripts with silly touches, such as farting aliens, talking pavement slabs, burping wheelie-bins and general slapstick.  No doubt he was aiming for a Roald Dahl-type humour that would keep kids entertained, though too often that humour tipped over into daftness.  The sometimes-juvenile tone of Davis’s scripts, which made up the bulk of the early stories of Nu-Who’s first season, might have been one reason why Ecclestone quickly announced that he’d be leaving the show at that season’s conclusion.  I suspect another reason was that Ecclestone wondered why a seasoned film actor like himself should have to put up with the BBC’s gruelling and non-stop shooting schedules.


But Ecclestone may have regretted his early decision to quit Nu-Who because it soon became clear that the revived show was a hit.  Restored to its traditional Saturday teatime slot, it triumphed in the ratings.  Also, in its later stories, it became good.  Particularly strong was the Rob Shearman-scripted Dalek, in which the Doctor becomes the prisoner of an American billionaire living in a bunker beneath the Utah Desert who collects alien artefacts.  Not only does he want to add the last of the Time Lords to his collection, but he’s already acquired another alien creature.  Damaged, but capable of repairing itself, this creature turns out to be – surprise! – the last of the Daleks.


Meanwhile, the two-part story The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances was written by Steven Moffat, another writer who, like Davies, had won acclaim for his previous work but had a secret Doctor-Who-fan skeleton lurking in his closet.  Reviving the body-horror trope that the show had done so well in the 1970s, it has a time-travelling swarm of medical nanobots arrive by accident in blitzed World War II London, where they promptly ‘fix’ a dying child, not aware that the gas-mask he’s wearing isn’t part of his natural anatomy.  Then they start carrying out the same repair-programme on every human they encounter, inadvertently creating an army of zombies with gas-masks grotesquely fused to their faces.  It’s a dark and frightening premise but Moffat manages to resolve the story with an uplifting and optimistic ending.  He won that year’s Hugo award for best dramatic presentation / short form – the first of four he would lift for the show.


(c) BBC


With Ecclestone gone, Davies hired as the next Doctor 35-year-old Scottish actor David Tennant.  Like Davies, I have mixed feelings about Tennant, and at times I’ve regarded him as the Roger Moore of Doctor Who.  As with Moore’s version of James Bond, I wasn’t happy with Tennant’s portrayal of the character; but, just as Moore’s 1979 Bond flick Moonraker was the most successful one to date, I can’t deny that he made the show massively popular.  The young, slim and telegenic Tennant proved especially popular with female viewers, i.e. teenaged girls and their mums.  Correspondingly, Davis cranked up the film’s romance factor, to the point where it seemed Tennant was incapable of getting through an episode without snogging, or at least making puppy-eyes at, whatever nubile young actress was in the guest cast that week.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Tennant and Billie Piper – who’d worked well with Ecclestone – became annoyingly lovey-dovey too.


Tennant is, however, a far better actor than Roger Moore and at times he managed to fashion a character whose human traits were convincingly balanced with his alien ones.  At other times, however, his Doctor was an irritating blur of tics, gimmicks and catchphrases.  Whereas Ecclestone had used his native north-of England accent, Tennant for some reason wasn’t allowed to sound Scottish and he opted instead for a grating ‘Mockney’ that made him sound like a fast-talking London street trader trying to sell a cache of dodgy watches.  Also, later, he grew increasingly self-pitying, whining about being the last of the Time Lords and about how much he missed Rose – just before the two characters could declare their love for each other, Billie Piper fell into a parallel universe at the end of Nu-Who’s second season, never to see her beloved Doctor again; or at least, not until Davies could think of a way to bring her back.  Small wonder that fans began to dub the Tennant Doctor ‘Doctor Emo’.


By Nu-Who’s third season – Tennant’s second – the Doctor had a new travelling companion, Martha, played by the underrated Freema Agyleman, who projected some spirit and intellect.  Sadly, though, the writers cheapened her character by having her fall in love with and then pine over the unattainable Tennant.  It was during this period that the show featured the best story of its revival, Blink, which earned writer Steven Moffat another Hugo.  It introduced Nu-Who’s smartest monsters, the Weeping Angels, creatures who exist as stone statues – in the disconcerting form of vampire-faced angels – when people are looking at them.  When nobody’s looking at them, they can come to life, move, hunt and kill.  The not-being-seen period that enables them to move can be very short indeed, even while somebody blinks or when a light-bulb flickers.  This allows Moffat to insert sequences where people see a Weeping Angel statue, blink, and then wonder why the statue seems to have edged a little closer towards them.  It was the show’s creepiest story since the Tom Baker days.



Next, Tennant acquired another travelling companion, Donna, played by Catherine Tate, who wasn’t trying to win his heart but who simply treated him as a chum.  One wonders if this was because of the fact that Tate was visibly a few years older than Tennant.  Meanwhile, during his last year or two in the role, the stories became ever-more bombastic.  Davies created ever-greater threats to the universe and the doctor came up with increasing convoluted scientific (i.e. ‘magic’ + ‘technobabble’) solutions to them.  The Daleks returned (again) with a ridiculously destructive weapon called the ‘reality bomb’, capable of destroying everything in this universe and in any other universe.  Then the Time Lords – who, it was now clear, had become as ruthless as the Daleks towards the end of the Time War – devised an ingenious (i.e. ludicrous) plan involving the Master, and humanity, to survive the final day of the Time War by escaping through time to present-day earth.  Playing the tyrannical leader of the Time Lords, incidentally, was none other than Timothy Dalton, James Bond IV, which led to some excited fan-geek speculation on the Internet that James Bond was also a Time Lord.  (He has, after all, had half-a-dozen different incarnations of his own.)


To be fair to Davies, he did script a couple of late-Tenant era Doctor Who stories that were very effective because they tapped into the show’s long tradition of gothic horror.  Midnight is claustrophobically set inside a small, single-chambered vessel that’s crashed on the surface of an alien planet, where a mysterious unseen ‘thing’ first stalks around outside and then stalks through the heads of the trapped passengers inside.  Waters of Mars, meanwhile, has the crew of a future base on Mars discover a water source that is in fact a sentient organism.  They get infected by it, one by one, and transform into cracked-faced ‘water-zombies’ while the creature tries to transport itself to a more conducive, watery environment – earth.


(c) BBC


By this time, 2009, it was announced that David Tennant was leaving the show and his replacement, Matt Smith, was unveiled.  My expectations were not great at this point because, at 26 years old, Smith was even younger than Peter Davison, my least favourite Doctor, when he’d taken on the role; and Smith’s costume was to be a bow tie / tweed jacket combo that made him look like a Hooray Henry.  This eleventh Doctor, it seemed, was going to be a mixture of Boris Johnson and Stewie-the-talking-baby in Family Guy.


However, I was pleasantly surprised because Matt Smith’s Doctor proved to be a delight.  He was an endearing creature that was ungainly and child-like, compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped him greatly, as did his decision to base some of his mannerisms on Patrick Troughton, the actor considered by many to be the greatest Doctor of all.


Departing from the show at the same time as Tenant was Russell T. Davies and he was replaced as show-runner by the revived show’s best writer, Steven Moffat.  Moffat’s tenure at the helm of Doctor Who has proved controversial and he’s even abandoned Twitter because he got fed up with the hectoring he was receiving from fans.  One criticism has been that he’s made the show unnecessarily complicated through the use of tangled, season-long story arcs.  Smith’s second season, for example, began with him apparently being killed.  Then the season devoted itself to showing, through plot-twists and instances of time travel (which were either ingenious or torturous, depending on your point of view), how he managed to avoid being killed.


Another bone of contention has been Moffat’s handling of female characters.  Firstly, he introduced as the Doctor’s new travelling companion Amy Pond, played by the flame-haired Invernessian actress Karen Gillan.  Bolshy, mercurial and contradictory, as maddening as she was lovable, Amy Pond was in other words typically Scottish – Moffat, incidentally, is also a Scot – which some fans south of the border found hard to fathom.  He also brought in River Song, a mysterious woman who eventually turned out to be an artificially created Time Lord.  Played by the sultry Alex Kingston, River Song was by turns arrogant, enigmatic, all-knowing and never short of a witty answer.  She was, basically, a female version of the Doctor, which old-school fans seemed to have trouble accepting.  She was also the one female character to have a more-than-Platonic relationship with Smith’s Doctor, who generally eschewed the flirting and snogging of his predecessor.  It says a lot for the acting abilities of Smith and Kingston (who’s two decades older than Smith) that they’ve managed to carry the relationship off without sparking a media outcry, led by the Daily Mail, about the BBC encouraging young, impressionable men to get off with older ladies.


Actually, I think that negative reactions to the show under Moffat have come from a sense of disappointment.  Fans assumed that because Moffat had written some brilliant episodes in the past, the show was now going to be brilliant every week, which it wasn’t – the Smith era has seen some notable clunkers, such as Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot and the dreadful Nightmare in Silver, which was written by Neil Gaiman.  (Shame on you, Neil.)  However, I still prefer the show under Moffat to how it was under Davies – mainly because, as show-runner, Moffat’s now writing a lot of the scripts and he’s a stronger writer than Davies.  Moffat’s stories tend to be ingenious, witty and fast-moving – so fast-moving that you need to keep your wits about you to follow what’s going on.  Unfortunately, such is their break-neck pace that pieces of plot and logic sometimes get lost along the way.  Also, the show now looks the best it’s ever looked, helped by some cinematic direction by the BBC’s best directors and some exotic location filming.  (This was a show, remember, once notorious for shooting all its alien-planet sequences in the same old quarry.)


Now the revived show’s biggest problem is that, just as the original show did, it’s built up a tremendous amount of mythology, which threatens to make it as impenetrable to new viewers as it was in the 1980s.  Since 2005, the copious new plot-elements, back-story references and recurrent characters have included Bad Wolf, Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood, the Oncoming Storm, River Song, the Silence, the Fields of Trenzalore and the War Doctor.  The last of these, the War Doctor, is a hidden incarnation of the Doctor who occurred between the eighth and official ninth Doctors, during the Time War: a dark version of himself that the Doctor has erased from his history like a family locking a mad relative in the attic.  Played by John Hurt, it becomes clear that the War Doctor ended the Time War with an act of genocide, using a super-weapon to wipe out the Daleks and the Time Lords before their conflict destroyed any more of the universe around them.


Hurt’s Doctor formed the basis of the 50th-anniversary story that aired a week ago.  It ends with Moffat cheekily retconning Davies’s original concept of the Time Lords being destroyed at the end of the Time War.  He has all the Doctor’s incarnations travelling through time to shunt the planet of the Time Lords into a hidden ‘pocket universe’, so that it only looks like they were destroyed in the Time War.  This also sets the Doctor up with a new mission for his next few seasons – to find his home planet again.


It was announced a while ago that Matt Smith, after three years in the role, is moving on too.  His replacement will be Peter Capaldi – the same Peter Capaldi who, as a Glaswegian youngster, tried unsuccessfully to seize control of the official Doctor Who fan club back in the early 1970s.  Capaldi is now 55 years old, the age William Hartnell was when he started playing the Doctor in 1963.  However, with Capaldi being a regular marathon runner and having just spent the past few years playing the ferociously adrenalized and stunningly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the political-satire TV series The Thick of It, I imagine his Doctor will be anything but the cantankerous old gentleman played by the role’s original actor.


I’ll be sad to see Matt Smith leave the show, which will happen in its next instalment, to be broadcast on Christmas Day, because I reckon he was the best actor to play the Doctor for a very long time.  It would have been nice to see him continue in the role for another season or two.  On the other hand, however, I can’t wait to see him regenerate into Malcolm Tucker: “F**k off, you wee spastic-voiced, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot knob-end c**ts!”


Life’s a Betj.



The Hereford Screen, which grandly fills a gallery above the main entrance of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and manufactured by the Coventry firm Skidmore & Co in 1862.  This eight-ton masterpiece of iron, brass, copper and semi-precious stones was intended to function as a choir screen, which in medieval cathedrals separated the nave (containing the congregation) from the chancel (containing the clergy).  Before the screen was installed in Hereford Cathedral, it was shown off at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, where it was proclaimed “the grandest and most triumphant achievement of modern architectural art”.



A century later, however, the Hereford Screen was removed from Hereford Cathedral because aesthetically it’d ‘fallen from favour’.  From that, I can only assume that it was deemed inferior by the standards of groovy 1960s art and design, i.e. it wasn’t concrete, ugly and brutal enough.  Its removal happened despite a chorus of protests led by the mighty Sir John Betjeman, who was so busy in those days trying to save St Pancras Station, Euston Arch and just about everything else of architectural value in England from the developers that I don’t know how he ever found time to write poetry.



The screen was moved to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry but – a sad indictment of the impoverishment of cultural institutions in the provinces compared with those in the capital – the museum didn’t have the money to house and maintain it properly.  So, in 1984, it found its way to the Victoria and Albert.


Exhibition Road



I’ve been in London for a couple of days, attending to a final item of paperwork at the Embassy of Tunisia, my previous workplace, which needs to be sorted out before I embark on my next adventure.  The Tunisian Embassy is at the top of Exhibition Road in South Kensington.  This particular London street has been visited by zillions of tourists over the years, drawn by the three world-famous museums near its southern end.  But Exhibition Road has sites of interest further along it too.


At its northern end are the premises of the Royal Geographical Society, which I understand contain the fascinating-sounding Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Official Use.  The PCGS’s principal function, according to its website, is “to advise the British Government on policies and procedures for the proper writings of geographical names for places and features outside the United Kingdom, excluding those of the Antarctic.”  There’s something gloriously pompous, in the way that only imperialistic British pomposity can manage, in the notion that some blokes in a building on a London street should pass judgement on what the rest of the world ought to call itself.  Ironically, one place whose inhabitants were less than impressed by the British and their imperial might has its embassy on the opposite side of the street – for facing the Royal Geographical Society building is the Afghanistan Embassy.



Further down is a simply-designed but still striking Art Deco building containing the apartments at numbers 59 to 63 Princes Gate.  It’s the sort of place you’d expect Hercule Poirot to step out of at any moment.  A little way beyond that is the Kensington branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose adherents believe that their church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was visited by an angel and led to some golden plates engraved with the writings of various prophets; that a people called the Jaredites journeyed from the Tower of Babel to America in about 2500 BC and another group, the family of Lehi, journeyed from ancient Jerusalem to America in about 600 BC; that Jesus appeared to these people, in America, in visions before his birth and after his resurrection; and that the Osmond family are of cultural significance.  The Mormons’ church on Exhibition Road contains in its window a statue of Jesus in a dynamic action-figure / Hulk-smash pose and it’s located directly across the street from the Science Museum, whose scientific vibes have probably not yet rubbed off on the congregation.



Down at the intersection with Cromwell Road, of course, the Natural History Museum stands on one side and the Victoria and Albert Museum stands on the other.  Turning the corner on the V and A side, I was confronted by this huge piece of hoarding beside the main entrance to the museum.  It announced that the venerable museum, or part of it, was to be turned into new luxury apartments offering buyers “the opportunity to become part of London’s imperial history”, living in homes that are “a jewel for those who want to stand out”.  Jesus Christ, I thought, gobsmacked.  I’d known London’s rapacious property market had led to the middle of the city being inhabitable only by Russian oligarchs, Chinese tycoons and Arab oil sheiks, but see one of the world’s loveliest museums prostituted like this – it was an act of philistinism and vandalism I’d assumed even London’s current Boris-tocracy wouldn’t sink to.  I learned later, though, that the hoarding was a wind-up.  It was a stunt by the Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset to promote their new installation, Tomorrow, which they’ve set up in five galleries on the third level of the museum.  So the V and A’s purity is safe – for a little while longer, at least.



Have I got Whos for you 2


 (c) BBC


The 1980s began with Doctor Who regarded as a much-loved and popular British institution.  By the end of that decade, it had the reputation of being a sad and embarrassing joke, watched only by the sort of male fan-geek who still lived with his parents, had personal hygiene problems and had never kissed a girl.  Many lay the blame for this at the door of John Nathan-Turner, who became the show’s producer in 1980 and stayed in the post for the next nine years.  Nathan-Turner certainly made mistakes, though it’s arguable that by keeping the show in the headlines – he had a great talent for publicity stunts and gimmicks – he helped it survive longer than it otherwise would have done.


Nathan-Turner’s initial instincts were sound enough, which were to tone down the amount of comedy in the show and get rid of horridly-cute robot dog K9.  He also employed a new script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, who was keen on using stories that both explored new developments in science (e.g. tachyons) and were imaginative – indeed, one of Bidmead’s scripts was inspired by the M.C. Escher picture Castrovalva.  Mind you, on his watch, the scripts got a bit too earnest.


However, the list of things that John Nathan-Turner got wrong is a long one.  He scrapped the show’s wonderfully eerie theme music (which was still recognisable as the one fashioned by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the early 1960s) and replaced it with a snazzy 1980s-style version that today sounds dated in the way that only 1980s music can.  The show’s incidental music also became dinky and garish in a peculiarly 1980s way, to the point where, nowadays, there are episodes from that era available on youtube that I can’t stomach because they’re so unlistenable.  Also, fatally, at a time when TV drama was becoming increasingly flashy-looking and cinematic, he left the filming of the show to a number of bog-standard, old-school TV directors, with the result that it often looked very flat and stagy indeed.


But for me Nathan-Turner’s worst mistake was to make the show more for its hard-core fans than for a mass audience.  It always had dedicated fans who bought all the memorabilia – in my childhood I owned Doctor Who annuals, models, painting kits and most of the novelisations of past adventures published by Target Books; I even pestered my long-suffering grandmother into knitting me a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.  But the show was massively popular among casual TV viewers too.  In fact, during the 1970s, while Star Trek fans gathered in huge conventions and acquired their own nickname (‘Trekkies’), Doctor Who fans were a much less visible, much more underground tribe.  The show had an official fan club, but it was run from a bedroom in Edinburgh by a lone teenager called Keith Miller, who managed to knock out an occasional Xeroxed newsletter.  (Miller has written two memoirs about his experiences as club organiser and, amusingly, he mentions that a young, rival Doctor Who fan in Glasgow kept trying to wrest control of the club from him.  The name of this Glaswegian would-be usurper was Peter Capaldi, of whom we will hear more later.)


Aware that by the 1980s Doctor Who fandom was taking on the trappings of a cult, Nathan-Turner increasingly tailored the show for those fans.  At every opportunity he popped in fan-pleasing references to past Doctors, companions, monsters and storylines – often things that only diehard fans could remember.  Thus, the programme became increasingly impenetrable for non-fans, even though they made up the majority of the TV viewing audience.  And, consequently, high ratings became a thing of the past.


After one year with Nathan-Turner at the helm, the mighty Tom Baker left the show and was replaced by Peter Davison, who’s probably my least favourite Doctor.  Baker was always going to be a hard act, if not an impossible one, to follow, but I couldn’t understand why his replacement should be someone as young and bland as Davison was at the time.  He was best known for playing Tristran Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Tardis he quickly, sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   (No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective and thought he was good.  He was just too young in 1981 to give the role much gravity.)


(c) BBC


In 1984 Davison gave way to Colin Baker, whom I thought was a far better choice.  For one thing, the second Baker tried to steer the character back to the abrasive and irascible one played by the original actor in the role, William Hartnell.  This approach worked well in dark, satiric adventures like Vengeance on Varos (a commentary on the then-topical ‘video nasties’ scare, written by Philip Martin, who’d been responsible for the surreal crime show Gangsters) and Revelation of the Daleks (a reworking of the Evelyn Waugh book The Loved One, which for a change was shot by a talented director, Graeme Harper).  Unfortunately, my positive opinion of Colin Baker is a minority one and most people regard him as the worst Doctor ever, the George Lazenby of the franchise.  What ruined his portrayal was the decision – another misjudgement by John Nathan-Turner – that he should wear a multi-coloured and jaw-droppingly ugly overcoat.  This was intended to make him appear more alien, but it had the result of making his Doctor very hard to take seriously.


Meanwhile, the BBC’s upper echelons were getting sick of the show.  Michael Grade, BBC1’s Controller during the 1980s, made no secret of his loathing for science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular and he did his best to sabotage it – cutting its budget, taking it off the air for an 18-month hiatus, ordering it to tone down its violence (Mary Whitehouse had been complaining again) and making Nathan-Turner sack Colin Baker.  He also moved the show from its traditional Saturday-teatime slot and broadcast it on weekday evenings, where it ended up against Coronation Street, rival channel ITV’s über-soap opera.  Coronation Street, in fact, was the Death-star of ITV programming.


By this time I was at college.  I, and a number of my (male) friends, still watched the show, partly out of nostalgia for how good it’d seemed in the 1970s, partly because there was still the occasional, decent story, and partly – brace yourselves for a sexist confession – because we fancied the Doctor’s female travelling companions.  Feminists derided Doctor Who because, traditionally, the female supporting cast had existed only to look pretty, scream at the monsters, twist their ankles whilst running away from those monsters, listen to large amounts of plot exposition and tell the Doctor how clever he was.  From the mid-1970s, though, the producers had tried to introduce female companions who at least walked a line between being eye-candy and being characters who matched, or nearly matched, the Doctor in terms of intelligence or attitude: the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, who played the smart and sassy journalist, Sarah-Jane Smith, and then actresses Louise Jameson, Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward and Janet Fielding.  By the mid-1980s, the companion was the super-bosomly Nichola Bryant.  I didn’t like her much because she was a throwback, wet in manner and screaming a lot, but her physical attributes at least kept the Dads and male students watching.


Unfathomably – another disastrous Nathan-Turner miscalculation – the next companion was comic actress Bonnie Langford, best known for playing shrill obnoxious schoolgirl Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s TV series based on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.  When she joined Doctor Who, Langford’s persona was still shrill and bratty and, thanks to her stick-thin frame, she remained child-like in appearance.  All those Dads and lads switched off forever.


In 1987 Sylvester McCoy, the first Scottish actor to take on the role, became the seventh Doctor and at this point I gave up.  McCoy is another actor I like, but with the grating Bonnie Langford sharing the Tardis with him, with the budget now apparently non-existent and with the stories appallingly written and going for a camp approach – I don’t mean ‘camp’ as in ‘flamboyantly gay’, but ‘camp’ as in ‘so-bad-it’s-entertaining’, like in the old Batman and Wonder Women TV series – I found the show too painful to continue with.  People tell me that later the show improved, with a feisty new companion (Sophie Aldred) replacing Langford and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, hiring talented writers like Ben Aaronovitch, future author of the Rivers of London novels, and the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, but I’d had enough.  When the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, I didn’t even notice.


Incidentally, one person who’s a big fan of the seventh Doctor is Peter Jackson, New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings movies.  Rumour has it that Jackson owns his own seventh-Doctor costume and he made a point of casting McCoy as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy.  Jackson has even offered to direct an episode of Doctor Who, provided the BBC give him a Dalek as payment.  Nothing has so far come of Jackson’s proposition – maybe the parsimonious BBC can’t spare the Dalek.


(c) BBC

Ironically, just as the BBC was pulling down the shutters on Doctor Who, another big TV science-fiction franchise was returning to the small screen.  In the USA, twenty years after Star Trek had first appeared on American television, Star Trek: the Next Generation made its debut with a brand new cast.  Such was its success that it spawned three further Star Trek series, with three further casts, which extended the franchise into the 21st century.  Once Doctor Who’s blood had been wiped off the BBC’s floorboards, executives there must’ve begun to wonder if they’d actually killed a potential cash-cow – and indeed, if there was not some way that cash-cow couldn’t be revived, and of course, milked, in the not-too-distant future.  The problem was finance.  A big TV sci-fi series in the 1990s required convincing, i.e. expensive, special effects, which was going to be a problem for the always cash-strapped BBC, whose low-budget special effects for Doctor Who might have been serviceable in the 1960s and 1970s but looked positively embarrassingly by the 1980s.  If the BBC was going to re-launch the show, it would have to do so in partnership with someone who had money.


The first attempt at a revival came in 1996 with a one-off BBC-American co-production called Doctor Who – The Movie.  With committee-rooms of suited American executives clamouring to have their say about how the new Who should be, whilst knowing absolute zilch about the old show, it could have been abysmal.  I’ve heard rumours that Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin International was involved at one point in the re-launch, wanted the Doctor played by Michael Crawford, famous in the US at the time for playing the lead in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera.  In the UK, Crawford was known to everyone for playing the beret-wearing, dim-witted, effeminate and utterly disaster-prone Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers do ’ave ’em; and the sight of Frank Spencer emerging from the Tardis would surely have killed off the show for British audiences, forever.  The finished effort actually starred Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann as a melancholic-faced, Byronic-looking and fairly credible Doctor and it wasn’t that bad.  It managed to get respectable viewing figures when it was shown in Britain, but it failed to make a splash in America, which destroyed its chances of earning a spin-off TV series.


(c) BBC / 20th Century Fox


The mistake made by the makers of Doctor Who – The Movie was not, as might be expected, because it strayed too far from the show’s mythology, but because it stuck too close to it.  In its first minute a voice-over managed to refer to the Master, Daleks and Time Lords, which must have mystified those crucial American TV viewers, 99.9% of whom knew nothing about the original show.  Another well-meaning nod to continuity, to keep old fans happy, was that the movie started off with Sylvester McCoy still playing the seventh Doctor and had him regenerate into the eighth, McGann, twenty minutes in.  Any Americans still watching by that point probably switched off in bafflement.


Fortunately, when the next attempt was made to revive the series, the person at the helm was Russell T. Davies – a man who knew what the pitfalls were and knew how to avoid them.


To be continued.


Have I got Whos for you



As animals learn to recognise the sounds of danger and take flight on hearing those sounds, so when I was six years old I learned to take flight when I heard a certain sound coming from the television on Saturday teatimes.  It was a weird, pulsating sound that went diddly-dink, diddly-dink, diddly-dink and it was the start of the famous electronic music of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show Doctor Who.  However, such was the monstrousness of the aliens encountered by the Doctor and his companions while they explored the universe in the Tardis, his police box-shaped space / time machine, that to me it seemed more like a horror show.  Legend has it that Britain’s entire juvenile population would take refuge from the show’s monsters by hiding behind their sofas, but I didn’t, because in our living room there wasn’t enough space to hide behind the sofa.  Instead, I’d run into the adjoining kitchen and sneak frightened glances back at the TV from the kitchen doorway.


However, like a character in a Joseph Conrad story, I eventually realised that the only way to conquer my fears was to confront them.  So I forced myself to stay in the living room when Doctor Who came on TV and watch it.  This was during the period when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and, during his last couple of seasons, I did become reasonably immune to the show’s scary bits.  But then in 1974 a new production team took over and new Doctor, Tom Baker, inherited the lead role.  They decided to make the show as frightening as possible – well, as frightening as they could get away with on a teatime TV series watched largely by primary-school-age kids.  And suddenly I found myself watching it from the kitchen doorway again.


The show was long-running even then.  It’s far longer-running now and today, November 23rd, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast in 1963.  Writer-actor Mark Gatiss recently wrote a TV play about how the show was created – courtesy of Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then head of drama, Verity Lambert, a young female producer, and William Hartnell, the flinty character actor who was the first person to play the Doctor.  Gatiss’s play, An Adventure in Space and Time, was shown on BBC2 two evenings ago and starred craggy Dundonian actor Brian Cox as Newman, actress Jessica Raine as Lambert and Harry Potter actor David Bradley as Hartnell.  An Adventure… nostalgically recreates both the tweedy boardrooms and the sweaty studios of the BBC in the early 1960s and is clearly a loving tribute by a massive fan of the show (which Gatiss avowedly is).  Also, it’s the best thing the BBC has done so far to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.


(Other celebratory items have included Doctor Who: the Ultimate Guide on BBC3, the corporation’s teen / twenty-something channel, which treated us to the opinions of such experts on the show as useless teenybop-rock band McFly.  There was also an optimistically-titled special called The Science of Doctor Who, hosted by Brian Cox.  That’s Brian Cox the famous physicist, not Brian Cox the craggy Dundonian actor.)


 (c) Royal Mail


William Hartnell was 55 when he took on the role in 1963, but if you’ve seen him in movies like Carry On Sergeant or Hell Drivers, you’ll know that he belonged to a wartime generation of British actors who seemed like tough, leathery old men no matter what their real age was.  Accordingly, Hartnell often played the Doctor as a cranky pensioner (although he mellowed later on).  Indeed, in the show’s early episodes, he’s quite unheroic.  He comes across as a devious old shite and on one occasion, when he picks up a rock intending to stove in the head of an injured man, seems almost psychotic.  I wish that in the show’s modern incarnation, where there’s much bleating about the Doctor’s pacifism and his unwillingness to use physical force, the programme-makers would cast their minds back to how the character behaved originally.


One nice thing about Gatiss’s play is that it shows the change Doctor Who wreaked in Hartnell’s life after 1963.  He’d become typecast as a hard-man character capable only of playing crooks and army sergeants, he wasn’t in the best of health and he was possibly at the end of his acting career.  Then he found himself in a wildly popular TV show, one unlike anything he’d done before, and suddenly he became an instantly-recognisable hero to the nation’s children.  Sadly, he didn’t have long to enjoy his fame.  After three years his declining health – he found it increasingly difficult to remember his lines, especially the show’s sci-fi technobabble – forced him to quit.


But it wasn’t Hartnell that made Doctor Who a huge success.  It was the saltshaker-shaped, croak-voiced and homicidal Daleks that trundled into view at the end of its fifth episode that sent ratings through the roof.  The Daleks were created by Terry Nation, who till then was known as a comedy writer.  Nation almost didn’t write for Doctor Who, as he was already lined up to work with the legendary TV comic Tony Hancock.  However, as happened so often with Hancock and his writers – see also Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – he and Nation fell out, and Nation accepted the invitation to write for Doctor Who after all.  Thereafter, Nation’s work was mostly fantastical – he worked as script-editor on The Avengers and in the 1970s created the shows Survivors and Blake’s 7 – and he became one of the most influential figures in British TV science fiction.




In 1966, with Hartnell unable to continue in the role, someone hit on the idea that the Doctor – a super-intelligent, centuries-old alien – should, once his current body had worn itself out, be able to regenerate himself.  This meant the show could go on with different actors inhabiting the lead role.  Each new actor would give the Doctor his own quirks, tics and gimmicks but he also had to persuade audiences that he was at heart (or hearts – the Doctor has two) the same character.


The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (who in An Adventure… was played by Mark Gatiss’s old League of Gentlemen colleague Reece Shearsmith), was a long-serving character actor, often in British horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963) and The Black Torment (1964).  Later, he returned to the genre, with Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which he played a priest who got memorably skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church.  (That scene still chills me – films in which Doctor Who gets killed off always seem hard-core to me.)  Troughton’s Doctor was an impish and dishevelled character, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  Most subsequent actors in the role have named him as their favourite Doctor and some (including current incumbent Matt Smith) have borrowed from him.


(c) BBC


The producers during the Troughton years, Innes Lloyd and then Peter Bryant, abandoned the ‘historical adventure’ stories common in the Hartnell era, in which the Doctor met the likes of Marco Polo, Emperor Nero and the Aztecs and the only science-fiction element was the Tardis.  Instead, they pushed the show towards out-and-out science fiction and monsters.  They developed the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies, the Cybermen, who started off as sinister gimp-like figures in silvery body-stockings and evolved into the hulking, blank-faced, handled-headed baddies that they’re familiar as today.


Also, the show featured more stories set on contemporary earth, for example, with Cybermen stomping down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and, more incongruously, yeti marauding through the London Underground.  No doubt this was due to budgetary restrictions, modern-day earth (well, London) being cheaper to film than the historical past or the distant future.  But it was also due to the producers realising that audiences found it more unnerving when the Doctor’s monstrous foes popped up in settings they were familiar with.  Debuting during this time was the long-running and admirably unflappable army-officer character, Brigadier (initially Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who helped Troughton and four subsequent Doctors against invading aliens.


In 1969, Troughton quit too and the BBC had to decide whether to end the show after a respectable seven-year run or to continue it with a new actor.  It opted for the latter course but made changes to the format.  The Doctor’s race, the all-powerful and isolationist Time Lords, were introduced.  The Doctor, it transpired, had stolen the Tardis from his home planet and nipped off in it to see the universe.  Worse, he’d broken the Time Lords’ non-interventionist code by meddling in events (for the good, obviously) at every place he’d landed.  Troughton’s tenure ended with the Time Lords capturing him, exiling him to earth – with the Tardis disabled – and making him regenerate again.


Stranded on earth and played now by Jon Pertwee, the Doctor fell in with the Brigadier again and started working for his anti-alien military organisation UNIT (which stood once for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; though after the real United Nations complained, the programme-makers changed it to the United Intelligence Taskforce).  Much crap has been written about Jon Pertwee by the show’s more intellectual fans.  Although until then Pertwee’s background had mostly been in comedy, he stands accused of making the character too much like a straightforward action hero – his Doctor wore a cape and often overcame the villains by using on them a futuristic martial art called Vensuvian Aikido.  Allegedly too, he made the character right-wing and authoritarian by working for the military-industrial complex, i.e. the Brigadier and UNIT.  It’s even claimed he turned the character into a petrol-head because his Doctor had a fondness for driving vintage cars.  Pertwee’s real personality – from all accounts he was a bit of a prima-donna – probably hasn’t helped his reputation.


(c) BBC


To that I can only say that during his tenure from 1970 to 1974, Pertwee’s impact was immense on kids like me.  To us, he was The Main Man.  Every Monday at school would be spent discussing what he’d got up to – what alien or monster he’d karate-chopped – on the previous Saturday’s episode.  (These discussions required considerable play-acting from me, as I’d been too scared to watch much of the episodes.  But to preserve my reputation for manliness I had to pretend that I had.)  No doubt it did Pertwee’s considerable ego no harm to know that, for a large section of the British population, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.


As the Doctor and the Brigadier were in a Holmes / Watson-type relationship, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks gave them a Moriarty in the shape of the Master, another renegade Time Lord, one who was as evil as the Doctor was good.  Playing the Master initially was the excellent Roger Delgado, a Cockney in real life although Spanish and Belgian in his parentage, which gave him the necessary amount of foreignness to be a British TV villain at the time.


This was also when the show’s greatest writer, Robert Holmes, became prominent.  He was responsible for such traumatising stories as Terror of the Autons, which featured murderous sentient plastic in various forms: murderous plastic dummies, dolls, armchairs, flowers and telephone leads.  Also creeping me out during this period was a non-Holmes story called The Daemons, which had the Master unleash ancient and evil forces from an English country church and which was in the tradition of 1970s British folk-horror movies like The Wicker Man.  A sequence where a malevolent group of Morris Dancers try to suffocate Pertwee by pinning him against a maypole and wrapping him with the pole’s ribbons while they dance around him has left me with a lifelong fear of Morris Dancers.


This period also saw The Three Doctors, an adventure marking the show’s tenth anniversary in 1973.  It brought together all three characters who’d played the character by that point: Pertwee, Troughton and (a very ailing) Hartnell.  This set the style for future anniversary / reunion adventures such as The Five Doctors (1983), The Two Doctors (1985), Time Crash (2007) and one that’s being shown tonight, featuring the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Day of the Doctor.  In these, the Doctors assemble through some strange kink in the space-time continuum, bicker, get on each other’s nerves and insult each other’s interior-design sense in the Tardis control room.  (“You’ve done this place up.  I don’t like it.”)  The Three Doctors saw Pertwee and co save the Time Lords from destruction and in gratitude they lifted his exile, allowing him to go wandering again.


(c) BBC


In 1974 the Doctor regenerated again, Pertwee being replaced by Tom Baker.  Like Troughton, Baker had served time in British horror and fantasy films like Vault of Horror, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Frankenstein: the True Story and the mind-boggling sleaze-fest The Mutations, and he was also a raconteur well-known for his drinking exploits in the less salubrious pubs of Soho with the likes of Francis Bacon.  Eccentric, wild-eyed, endowed with a voice and manner that made him seem like a Shakespearean version of Groucho Marx, and wearing the definite Doctor Who outfit of a wide-brimmed hat and super-long multi-coloured scarf, he became the franchise’s signature Doctor.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.


With Baker as the definite Doctor, an ambitious young producer called Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm, and the show’s best writer, Robert Holmes, as script-editor, the next three years were the show’s Golden Age.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes borrowed ideas from all manner of British horror and adventure fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as from the Hammer horror films and Quatermass, and they produced a slew of classic (and, for me, terrifying) adventures: The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Masque of Mandragora, The Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang.


During this era my all-time favourite Who adventure was broadcast, The Seeds of Doom, which concerned alien seed-pods that germinated, infected their human victims and then slowly transformed them into hideous, flesh-eating plant-monsters.  One pod falls into the hands of a crazed millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by Tony Beckley, a familiar face from cult British movies like Get Carter and The Italian Job – and Chase wastes no time in getting it to germinate.  The scenes where slowly-transforming botanist Arnold Keeler is chained to a bed, futilely begging Chase to give him medical help, while Chase is more interested in aiding his metamorphosis by feeding him protein (i.e. slices of raw meat), is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched on TV.


Alas, all good things come to an end.  By 1976 Britain’s self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Mary Whitehouse was on the warpath about the show’s horror and violence – she was particularly upset by an episode of The Deadly Assassin that seemingly ended with Tom Baker being drowned.  So the BBC took Hinchcliffe off the show and instructed its next producer, Graham Williams, to tone things down.  Consequently, Williams’ era is seen as the start of a long period of decline for the show, the stories being pitched at a much younger audience and Baker being encouraged to play up the Doctor’s comedic aspects.  Most painfully, a cute and intensely annoying robot dog called K9 was added to the cast.  One of the creators of K9 was writer Bob Baker, who since then has co-written the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park.  I can only say that, as heroic dogs go, K9 is not fit to sniff Gromit’s bottom.


(c) BBC


That said, I still found some of the Williams-era Doctor Who entertaining.  This was largely because towards the end of it the great Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was appointed script editor, which upped the level of wit in the writing.  Also, Tom Baker received some good dramatic support, both from his regular cast (which included Lalla Ward, now better known as Mrs Richard Dawkins) and from his guest stars, which included such classy characters actors as Iain Cuthbertson, Valentine Dyall, Peter Jeffrey, John Woodvine and Julian Glover.  Glover, in fact, was the villain in the best adventure of this period, The City of Death, which was set in Paris and co-written by Adams.  At one point The City of Death managed to attract some 16 million viewers, showing that, even if the show was declining in quality, the Great British public was still watching it in droves.


A year later, however, another new producer arrived and a terrible thing happened.  For the first time, Doctor Who became conscious of its fans.


To be continued.


Digging Graves: book review / Collected Short Stories by Robert Graves


(c) Penguin


My copy of The Collected Short Stories of Robert Graves is a 1971 reprint of an edition first published by Cassell in 1965 and then by Penguin in 1968.  Its front cover — not the one featured above — is one of the worst I’ve ever seen on a book.  There’s no picture, photograph, pattern or design.  Featured against a white background are the author’s name, the book’s title and a few lines of blurb: “Thirty stories – written between 1924 and 1962 English, Roman and Majorcan – selected by the author.  ‘Most of them, including the more improbable ones, are true…’”  The burb is badly punctuated and should’ve been printed on the book’s back cover.  Also, it’s printed in large green italics, so that it looks like it was written in snot.  Yummy.  No wonder I couldn’t find it on Google Images today.


Anyway, onto the book’s contents.  It contains 16 short stories set in England, three set in ancient Rome and 11 set in Majorca, where Graves lived from 1929 and before the largest of the Balearic Isles became famous as a Mediterranean tourist resort.  The English, Roman and Majorcan stories are grouped together in their own sections, so that sometimes the book feels like three collections in one.


I’d known that Graves had mystical tendencies.  These were demonstrated in his 1948 non-fiction book The White Goddess, in which he speculates that the poetic impulse comes from a Mother Goddess-like deity that’s embedded in European mythology.  This idea, incidentally, led to him being name-checked recently in Paul Murray’s acclaimed novel Skippy Dies.  I’d also read his memoir, Goodbye to All That, whose account of his service as a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during World War I is particularly vivid and famous.  And I’d known him as the author of I, Claudius, which purported to be the story of Emperor Claudius, penned by Claudius himself, and which in the 1970s was turned into a barnstorming BBC TV production by Jack Pulman.  (I, Claudius-the-series, in fact, was one of the best things the BBC has ever done.  In it, each of the performers who played the early Roman emperors subsequently became an acting legend: Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius, John Hurt as Caligula, Derek Jacobi as Claudius himself and, erm, Christopher Biggins as Nero.)


(c) Rank Organisation


I approached these stories curious if they’d introduce me to some new sides of Robert Graves that I wasn’t yet aware of.  The collection certainly begins strongly, with the 1924 tale The Shout.  I’d known The Shout had been filmed in 1978 with Alan Bates and John Hurt and it was about Bates acquiring from some Australian Aborigines the ability to wreak havoc and kill people by emitting a terrifying sound from his vocal chords – but I wasn’t prepared for just how freaky this story is.  Not only does it feature that supernatural shout, but it features much Jungian speculation about dreams and premonitions.  Also, there’s a sub-plot about human souls being contained within pebbles, which sounds like – indeed, is – a lot of guff but somehow fits in with the story’s mad logic.  And it has a wonderful framing device, whereby the narrator is told the story by an inmate of a lunatic asylum while the two keep the score at a cricket match being played between the asylum’s cricket team and a ‘normal’ one.


The other English-set stories are more conventional.  They’re entertaining efforts, blacker and more poisonous than the short fiction of Somerset Maugham whilst more idiosyncratic than that of Roald Dahl.  Combining the morbid and the amusing particularly well are Earth to Earth, a story about garden-composters gone mad; and Week-end at Cwm Tatws, in which a fisherman visiting a remote Welsh town gets stricken with an agonising toothache – which proves to be only the first and least of his troubles.  None of them make quite the same impact as The Shout, however.


However, the last two stories in this section, which draw on Graves’s memories of World War I, are fascinating.  The Christmas Truce is narrated from the 1960s and is about a veteran trying to set his grandson, a CND supporter, straight about what really happened during the famous festive truce on the Western Front in 1914.  You Win, Houdini, meanwhile, is about a group of officers in the trenches who get saddled with a confidence trickster and shirker called Cashman, who’s determined to preserve his skin at all costs: “Most of us felt some sympathy for true-blue Bible-punching Conchies, who quoted the Sixth Commandment at the tribunals, and damn well meant it – what we couldn’t stand were dirty yellow-bellied column-dodgers of the Cashman type, who banked on being safer in the Army than out, if they played their cards properly – and Houdini Cashman had his tunic sleeves stuffed with aces.”


Also excellent are the three Ancient Rome-set stories that feature in the middle of this volume: Epics are Out of Fashion, The Tenement: A Vision of Imperial Rome and The Myconian.  These are stuffed with intriguing little details about life in the capital of the ancient world’s greatest empire and with crafty little digs at its corruptness and decadence.  They also contain cameo appearances by Emperors Claudius and Nero – such is the spell that the TV I, Claudius has over my imagination that I immediately visualised them as the great Derek Jacobi and the great, erm, Christopher Biggins.


The Majorcan stories are written in the voice of an expatriate observing the peculiarities of life in a new home that he’s bemused by but fond of.  They’re set in a comfortable world where men spend their working days drinking coffee and anis on café terraces, bullfighters take superstitious fright when they meet a posse of nuns on the way to the bull-ring, Civil Guards doze all day because “Majorcans seldom commit crimes (unless smuggling be so regarded, which must remain an open question)”, the Church has turned every second day into a public holiday to honour some saint or other, and the wives and mothers of the male characters – when not bickering and gesticulating – run the whole show from the sidelines.  Little mention is made, though, of the fact that Spain was a fascist dictatorship at the time and Franco was busy persecuting the local Catalan language and culture.  These stories are perfectly pleasant and at least one – The Viscountess and the Short-Haired Girl – is very funny, but their gently mocking tone gets a little excessive when you read 11 of them in a row.


The entertainment value of The Collected Short Stories of Robert Graves is high overall, but the stand-out stories are the mystical The Shout, the First World War ones and the Roman ones.  Which means I didn’t learn anything about the strengths of Robert Graves, mystic, war veteran and chronicler of Ancient Rome, which I hadn’t known already.


Writers of Doctor Who


(c) Target Books


Despite the fact that most big science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars leave me cold, or at best lukewarm, I have a great deal of affection for Doctor Who, which this coming Saturday will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast.  I suspect the reason is because Doctor Who is essentially a writer’s show.  Among its fans there’s as much discussion of the people writing the scripts as there is of the actors playing the Doctor, and indeed, these days, the name of the ‘show-runner’ (invariably a writer) is almost as well-known as the name of the lead actor himself.  And the show’s premise, whereby a renegade character, devoid of personal ties and expelled from his own culture, wanders around in a miraculous space / time machine that can visit anytime in history and anywhere in the universe, is so loose that it allows writers to let their imaginations off the leash and write about practically anything.


Among the people who over the years have written Doctor Who episodes, or associated media for the show such as novels and comic strips, are: Dan Abnett, Douglas Adams, Ben Aaronovitch, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Robert Banks Stewart, Christopher H. Bidmead, David Bishop, Chris Boucher, Chris Chibnall, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Russell T. Davis, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Gallagher, Mark Gatiss, Brian Hayles, Charlie Higson, Don Houghton, Malcolm Hulke, A.L. Kennedy, Philip Martin, Pat Mills, Steven Moffat, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, James Moran, Grant Morrison, Rona Munro, Terry Nation, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Dennis Spooner and Toby Whitehouse.  All right, there are at least two names on that list whose output I think is absolutely dreadful (clue – their surnames both begin with ‘C’) but between them these writers are responsible for a vast amount of significant cultural material over the past half-century: everything from Anno Dracula and Artemis Fowl to Wallace and Gromit and The Watchmen.


But there are two Doctor Who writing names who, in my opinion, tower above the rest.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Holmes was the scriptwriter responsible for a number of stories (Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Ark in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng Chiang, The Caves of Androzani) whose images seared themselves on my youthful brain and have lurked there ever since.  Those images range from the sequence in Spearhead from Space where plastic shop-mannequins come to life, smash their way out of shop-windows and slaughter passers-by, to one terrifying scene in The Ark in Space that ended with an infected space-station crewman removing his hand from his pocket to reveal it’d turned into a knob of slimy green alien flesh.  All right, that alien flesh was actually made of green-painted bubble-wrap, but back in 1975 bubble-wrap was a new invention and I didn’t know what it was.


Terrance Dicks, meanwhile, served as scriptwriter and occasional writer on the show during the 1970s.  But it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series, which turned most of the TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks with attractive and colourful covers (often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos) that Dicks deserves the greatest praise.  Back then, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow people to catch up with missed television.  Also, the BBC seemed distinctly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who – indeed, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughon, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their storerooms.  (Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of wanton destruction now.)  So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, which were invariably penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  In fact, I suspect that Dicks did nearly as much to get folk my age reading books in the United Kingdom as, say, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton.


The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they tended to make the stories seem a lot more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  In fact, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling space-ports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets, bare, blank and a bit shaky.  Alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were inevitably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.


At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation – I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Blood-Lust of the Sontarans.  The Sontarans were those war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  They were a sort of middle-ranking monster – I suppose in the league table of great Doctor Who villains they were the equivalent of Newcastle United.


A year later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a colourful, hopefully-Chris-Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, those demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly-evolved virus and they were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.   I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and they used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.


People often scoff at the phenomenon of fan fiction, but I should point out that that was precisely how E.L. James, the immensely popular, if hardly-critically-respectable author of Fifty Shades of Grey, started out – she originally wrote fan fiction about Bella and Edward in the Twilight series.  Though I have to say that unlike Ms James, my ten / eleven-year-old self was at least writing fan fiction about something that wasn’t complete shite.


Stand by for another Who-related post over the days to come…


(c) BBC


Tweed Valley jogging



It’s hard to believe that a couple of months ago, when I still lived in Tunisia, going jogging meant having to negotiate broken and uneven pavement-stones, bags of rubbish dumped on and spilling over those pavements, huddles of old men sitting outside sipping coffee and smoking shishas, tribes of scavenging feral cats and lots of badly-driven, smelly and noisy cars.  Even when I reached a comparatively empty and quiet area to run in – Belvedere Park, whose lower slopes extended into my neighbourhood – I often had to jog around packs of stray dogs, past armoured vehicles loaded with suspicious-eyed cops and through the fog of musty animal smells that swirled out of Belvedere Zoo.


It was a great contrast, then, to my current jogging route.  When the weather permits, I run from my Dad’s house to Hay Lodge Park at the western end of Peebles, and from there along the valley of the River Tweed.  A path takes me by Neidpath Castle, up a flight of steps at the side of a disused viaduct and onto a former railway line, which I can follow to Lyne Station a couple of miles further west.  Along the way I get to see some gorgeous scenery, so I’ve posted here a few photographs I took whilst jogging recently on a cold and frosty morning.  Refreshingly, there isn’t a dodgy pavement, a rubbish-bag or an old bloke with a coffee and a shisha in sight.  At worst, you may encounter a townsperson out for a walk or a flock of sheep.



I did, however, see a cat the other morning – a black one skulking on the former railway track about ten yards ahead of me.  The moment it became aware of me, the cat vanished among the trees lining the track’s sides.  I have to say this cat seemed inordinately big.  Indeed, it almost looked panther-like.  I wonder if I was actually witness to one of those ‘big cat’ sightings that are reported occasionally in the British media and that inspire crypto-zoologists to go combing the British countryside for roving pumas, leopards and jaguars.


It could, of course, have been a trick of the light – the stripes of sunshine falling between the path-side trees could have made what was a common household cat look bigger than it was.  Or it could actually have been a black dog – though its long tail didn’t look very dog-like.  Or maybe it was a hallucination induced by the medication I’m currently taking, which consists of four to five large drams of White and Mackay Scotch whisky every evening, prescribed by my Dad as protection against the onset of arthritis, hair loss, tooth decay and senility.



Cinematic heroes 5: Brian Glover


(c) Universal


The Wikipedia entry about Brian Glover begins with a quote from the great man that served both as a mission statement and as a career summary: “You play to your strengths in this game.  My strength is as a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.”  For a quarter-century, Glover played characters that were shiny of pate, pugnacious of visage and flat of vowels in many a British movie, TV show and stage play.  In the process he made himself one of the most recognisable character actors in the country.


Born in Sheffield, brought up in Barnsley, the young Glover followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional wrestler and used ‘the Red Devil’ as his ring name.  Whilst attending the University of Sheffield, Glover found wrestling a useful way of funding his studies and he fought bouts under the moniker of ‘Leon Aris, the man from Paris’.  Glover was a good-enough wrestler to appear on television, during those Saturday-teatime wrestling slots shown on ITV’s World of Sport that 40 years ago turned such bruisers as Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Jim Brakes and Big Daddy into legends among impressionable kids like myself.  He continued wrestling long after graduating and after settling into a respectable day job, which was teaching English and French at Barnsley Grammar School.  One of Glover’s colleagues there was Barry Hines, who’d written the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which in 1968 was filmed as Kes by the incomparable Ken Loach.


Loach needed someone to play the puffed-up, preposterous and unwittingly loutish Mr Sugden, the PE teacher at the school attended by Kes’s young hero, Billy Casper; and Hines suggested Glover.  For his audition, and to test Glover’s believability as a teacher, Loach staged a playground brawl and got Glover to break it up – which obviously wasn’t difficult for him, being a teacher already and a wrestler.  Glover’s turn as Sugden, who organises a football match with his pupils, insists on taking part himself, and then fouls and flattens the kids while dashing at the goal and mouthing an imaginary commentary – he likens himself to “the fair-haired, slightly-balding Bobby Charlton” – provides a bleak film with its one shaft of comic sunshine.  (The 1998 Loach movie My Name is Joe, which has its own amusing footballing sequences, indicates that the beautiful game is the one thing guaranteed to make the famously anti-establishment director lighten up.  Small wonder that when he finally got around to directing a comedy, it was 2009’s Waiting for Eric with Eric Cantona.)



Glover spent another two years teaching before his next acting assignment, which was a role in the Terence Rattigan play Bequest to the Nation.  Thereafter, he swiftly became ubiquitous.  On television he appeared in Coronation Street, Dixon of Dock Green, The Sweeny, The Regiment, Quiller, Minder, Last of the Summer Wine, Bottom and Doctor Who – in that last show he got gunned down by a Cyberman.  He gave particularly memorable performances in two 1970s shows scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who at the time wrote virtually the only British TV sitcoms set outside London and the middle-class Home Counties.  In a famous 1973 episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads he plays the devious Flint, who makes a bet with Geordie heroes Bob and Terry that they can’t get through the day in Newcastle-upon-Tyne without hearing the score of an important football match.  A year later, Glover joined the cast of Clement and La Frenais’ revered prison sitcom Porridge, playing the hapless, slow-witted convict Cyril Hislop, whose key line was: “I read a book once.  Green, it was.”


When not playing convicts, crooks and thugs, Glover could leaven his northern tones with a twinkling gentleness, which made him popular among advertisers.  As a result, when his face wasn’t popping up on TV shows, his voice was popping up on commercials between those shows.  Most notably, he voiced the TV advertisements for Allinson’s bread – “Bread with nowt taken out” – and for Tetley teabags.  In the latter ad, he played the leader of the Tetley Tea-Folk, an animated tribe of diminutive, white-coated and cloth-capped characters dedicated to giving each teabag its ‘2000 perforations’.


Meanwhile, during the 1970s, Glover became a regular in British movies – including Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 oddball epic O Lucky Man!, Michael Crichton’s 1979 period adventure The First Great Train Robbery and Terry Gilliam’s 1978 medieval comedy Jabberwocky, in which he played the foreman of an ironworks that’s reduced to chaos when Michael Palin blunders into it.  In Douglas Hickox’s 1975 London-set thriller Brannigan, he was a minor villain who got roughed up by John Wayne.  Brannigan features Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters; and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.


(c) United Artists


In 1981, John Landis made his much-loved horror-comedy-romance-tragedy An American Werewolf in London, the opening scenes of which, set in a northern pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, called for a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.  Obviously, there was only one man for the job.  Landis duly cast Glover and the resulting scene, wherein he entertains the Lamb’s patrons with his ‘Remember the Alamo!’ joke, is, along with Kes, his finest cinematic moment – both films show what a fine comic actor he was.  (Unfortunately, the jovial mood in the pub is then ruined when David Naughton and Griffin Dunn inquire about the strange five-pointed star painted on the wall.)  Three years later, Glover turned up in another classic werewolf movie, playing a villager in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic short story, The Company of Wolves – he gets into a brawl with the previous subject of this Cinematic Heroes series, David Warner.


Glover had another monster, a slimy one rather than a hairy one, to deal with in 1992’s Alien 3, wherein he played the warden in charge of the stormy prison-planet where Sigourney Weaver crash-lands (unwittingly bringing with her a cargo of egg-laying alien face-huggers).  Directed by a young David Fincher, Alien 3 is a much-maligned film.  It can’t help but seem anti-climactic after the previous film in the Alien series, James Cameron’s barnstorming Aliens in 1986, and the fact that it begins by killing off most of the characters left alive at the end of Aliens didn’t endear it to long-term fans.  It’s got some wonderfully grungy set design, though, and there’s something heroic about the film’s uncompromising and un-Hollywood-like pessimism.  Even Weaver herself gets it at the end.  One of Alien 3’s biggest problems is that, due to incompetent scripting and editing, most of its interesting characters – Glover, Charles Dance, Paul McGann – vanish from the story halfway through.  (For British audiences, Glover brought a little too much baggage to his role in Alien 3.  When I saw the film in an Essex cinema, there were guffaws during a scene where Weaver confronts Glover in his office and the Voice of the Tetley Tea-Folk absent-mindedly dunks a teabag into a cup of boiling water.)


(c) 20th Century Fox


Glover must have got on well with Sigourney Weaver, for he subsequently turned up in 1997’s Snow White: a Tale of Terror, in which Weaver played the evil queen.  Another late role was in the endearingly off-the-wall 1993 comedy Leon the Pig Farmer, in which a young Jewish Londoner, played by Mark Frankel, discovers that he’s the result of an artificial-insemination mix-up and his father is actually a Yorkshire pig farmer – inevitably a bald-headed, rough-looking one played by Glover.  What makes Leon, which also starred Fawlty Towers’ Connie Booth and former Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, a little melancholy to watch now is the knowledge that lead actor Frankel died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years later.


Glover’s stage CV was as busy as his film and TV ones.  He appeared with the Royal Shakespearean Company in productions of As You Like It (playing, appropriately, Charles the Wrestler) and Romeo and Juliet, while other theatre work included Don Quixote, The Iceman Cometh, The Long Voyage Home, The Mysteries and Saint Joan.  Lindsay Anderson, a stage director as well as a film one, cast him in productions of the David Storey plays The Changing Room and Life Class and Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.  Such was Glover’s fame by the time he appeared in a West End version of The Canterbury Tales that it was advertised with a slightly amended version of one of his catch-phrases: “Chaucer with nowt taken out.”


It’s often overlooked that Glover was a literary figure as well.  He was a prolific playwright and writer, responsible for over 20 plays and short films, and he also penned a column in a Yorkshire newspaper.  Asked to contribute a script to a 1976 TV drama anthology called Plays for Britain (which also featured writing by Stephen Poliakoff and Roger McGough), Glover found himself short of inspiration, so he paid a visit to a police station and inquired if they’d experienced anything unusual lately that he might be able to use as an idea.  While he was at the station, a woman trooped in to the front desk to report indignantly that someone had pinched her front door – and suddenly, Glover had his story.


Meanwhile, I remember seeing Glover on a TV arts programme, discussing – with Anthony Burgess, no less – Paul Theroux’s acerbic 1983 travel book about the British coastline, The Kingdom by the Sea.  Glover, who during his wrestling days had toured many of the towns Theroux wrote about, took particular exception to Theroux’s abusive comments about the people of Aberdeen: “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.”


Alas, in 1996, Brian Glover met his own Alamo.  He underwent an operation for a brain tumour, although a fortnight later he was back at work, making what would be his final film – Up and Under, which was fittingly about the popular-in-the-north-of-England sport of rugby league football and was made by the dramatist John Godber, whose debut play Bouncers has become a much-performed classic.  (Glover was among the first people to go and see Bouncers when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 and was quick to offer Godber words of encouragement.)  The tumour eventually killed him in July 1997 and he is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London, where a simple gravestone describes him as a ‘Wrestler – Actor – Writer’.  Not just a Yorkshireman, then, but a true Renaissance man.