Wednesday, 22 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Patrick Troughton



The Second Doctor meets his definitive enemeies. (Courtesy: BFI)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 9 February 2013

NFT 1 pays host to a celebration of the man who ensured Doctor Who’s longevity – the ‘cosmic hobo’ himself, Mr Patrick Troughton.

One of the many wonderful things about these BFI events celebrating Doctor Who’s half century is finding out what familiar faces are enthusiasts. If I’d been told that
uber New Lad and football fanatic Frank Skinner had been tuning in since William Hartnell’s time, I would have thought it was about as likely as Danny Dyer playing the Doctor. But there he was – Skinner, not Dyer – on Saturday 9 February, introducing ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, Patrick Troughton’s entry in the BFI’s anniversary screenings.

Despite self deprecatingly considering himself “that lowest of all creatures, the celebrity fan”, the way Skinner conveyed his enthusiasm was endearing and often very funny. It was an ideal introduction for an event like this, opening up the series to an audience that host Justin Johnson quite rightly pointed out wasn’t just hard-core Doctor Who fans. Sitting in the seats to my right and behind me were several children – some of whom were so young they can only have been aware of the series since Matt Smith took over – and, hearteningly, they watched spellbound throughout the four black and white episodes, which were sometimes very creaky by modern standards. They even laughed in all the right places.

Frank Skinner and Executive Producer
Steven Moffat. (Courtesy: BFI)
Skinner spoke engagingly about his love for Troughton’s atypical hero of “brains, cleverness and guile”, as well as pointing out how cool a schoolboy learning to play the recorder in the 1960s was made to look by the second Doctor. Skinner handed the microphone on to current producer Steven Moffat, who delighted the audience by saying that he found ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ so scary as a child that he didn’t watch again until Jon Pertwee took over. As an adult, though, Moffat wasn’t blind to the questionable logic of the Cybermen’s plan, which involved “invading the universe by locking yourself in a fridge.” Amusing preamble over, Skinner and Moffat settled into a row of seats with Mark Gatiss. It was nice to think that here were three fans – a writer/actor/producer, comedian/chat show host and executive producer who gave up “a perfectly good film career” to actually produce Doctor Who – watching as fans in a room full of fans. Whoever you are, once you get the magic it never leaves you.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. To my taste there are better, more consistent Troughton stories, but as a production perhaps it’s an archetypal Doctor Who story of the old school. For every moment of brilliance, from the undeniably iconic scene of the silver cyborgs emerging from hibernation to a soundtrack of still contemporary sounding, ominous electronic music, there’s something risible like the silent movie-level special effect of a cuddly Cybermat attacking villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin). Excellent to execrable in two scenes: classic Doctor Who in a nutshell.

With a slight technical hitch between episodes one and two (one wag was heard to comment that after the story being missing for years, he hoped that it hadn’t been lost again) the interview with Patrick Troughton’s son Michael was brought forward. It was captivating to hear his reminiscences of being a child in the ‘60s whose father was suddenly Doctor Who, a status that, predictably, brought an “increase in the number of friends I had at school.” Particularly fascinating were his memories of how seriously his father approached the role, drawing different ideas for his interpretation of the Doctor in a small notebook, and how this “very nervous”, committed actor had to grit his teeth and endure negative audience feedback for his first story. It’s had to imagine these days, but Troughton’s casting was an incredible gamble and might not have worked.

After the remaining episodes, during I could hear Shirley Cooklin’s relations laughing good naturedly behind me at her performance (which I suspect was rather melodramatic even for 1967), it was time for the main panel of guests. Although perhaps lacking the frisson of having members of the first ever production team on stage together in January, it was still an impressive line up. The Hartnell to Troughton changeover was represented by director Michael Ferguson and companion actress Anneke Wills (Polly), while ‘Tomb’ itself was denoted by no less than four actors – Deborah “Leatherlungs” Watling (companion Victoria Waterfield), Cooklin, Bernard Holley (archaeologist Peter Haydon) and Michael Kilgarriff (the Cyber Controller himself).

As with the Hartnell panel, the chat was by turns affectionate, nostalgic and respectful. Wills declared herself “completely in love with” Troughton, Watling remembered being introduced to the drinking culture of the BBC Club at lunchtime and “never looked back”, while Ferguson believed that Troughton was “by far the best actor” of all the Doctors and, arguably, helped to make Doctor Who respectable within the acting profession. I have to say, though, that Kilgarriff’s story about how bad William Hartnell was in a pantomime after he left the series was spectacularly misjudged; in an auditorium full of people who like Doctor Who, you could almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the stage during his anecdote. 

If I have a criticism, it’s that with so many choice guests some of them didn’t get an equal share of the limelight – Watling, in particular, could have been given more time – but with the event over-running because of a technical breakdown this was understandable. Overall, the whole thing came across as a loving and joyous celebration of “the cosmic hobo”, and while I’m still not that keen on ‘Tomb’ as a story, on the big screen the brilliance of Troughton’s performance still burns brightly. If we have anyone to thank for the show still being on today, it’s him.

Kudos to the BFI for making the late 1960s live again during a very enjoyable afternoon – and on a Saturday, too.

This article first appeared in the 2013 issue of Peladon fanzine. Thanks to Steve O'Brien for permission to reprint. For more Doctor Who features and other TV coverage, check out Steve's website:

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