Tuesday, 18 June 2013

BFI Southbank: Colin Baker



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

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

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