Sunday, 25 August 2013

BFI Southbank: Christopher Eccleston


BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 23 August 2013

'Do that for me, Rose – have a fantastic life.'
(Image: BBC)

Christopher Eccleston’s monumental performance as the first 21st century Doctor lived again in one of this year’s most inspiring BFI celebrations of Doctor Who.

In one of those wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey things, today the BFI jumped over Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth. It’s less of a disjunction than you might think. Ignoring the TARDIS’s mid 1990s detour to San Francisco, the BBC’s 21st century relaunch of Doctor Who picked up where the original series left off, on a London sink estate with a working class – can we even use that expression any more? – young girl, Rose Tyler (the wonderful Billie Piper), as the companion.

If Joss Whedon’s cult American drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the model for what the BBC wanted, executive producer and chief writer Russell T. Davies chose to keep that show’s smart one liners and drop the irony. Rose’s dialogue near the end of her eponymous first episode sounds like one of Buffy’s motivational speeches, but the crucial line is ‘I got the bronze [medal]’, grounding the character and the new Doctor Who in a recognisable version of muddling Britain, not a million miles from Walford, that everyone in the audience could relate to. RTD said that ‘to make Doctor Who fly again, we had to bring it down to Earth’ and that’s precisely what he did, to tremendous acclaim.

In Doctor Who’s long and tangled history, by 2004 it was at the point where children who had grown up watching the show were now making it. There was a lot of love emanating from NFT 1’s stage today, particularly from producer Phil Collinson, whose enthusiasm nearly ten years on from when he started working on the series hadn’t diminished one bit. He amused everyone by saying that Doctor Who fans were like the Slitheen, monsters that hid inside zipped-up human bodies, in that within two minutes of two meeting and talking they knew what the other was interested in and ‘the zip [appeared].’ This was the case when Collinson met RTD and when he discovered that Doctor Who was coming back, ‘I did everything I could [to work on it] as I knew I was the only person in show business who could produce this.’

The same enthusiasm was evident in CGI effects designer Dave Houghton, interviewed in a break between ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘The Parting of the Ways’. His first Doctor Who memory was seeing ‘a giant maggot creeping up behind Katy Manning’, a happy coincidence as the Jo Grant actress was in the audience. (Coincidentally, she’d been signing new DVDs of the maggot story ‘The Green Death’ as prizes for the by now traditional quiz.)

Houghton started out as a runner at The Mill – the effects company who won the contract to make Doctor Who’s CGI effects – and worked up the ranks over eighteen years to become one of the company’s main designers. His talk about how the new production team approached effects was fascinating. They were planned and allocated months in advance at tone meetings, a far cry from the ad hoc approach to models and special effects of original Doctor Who in it’s prime. Even with the technology available in the 21st century, there were moments when Houghton thought ‘[we’ll] never be able to film this’, but to his and his team’s credit they delivered everything that RTD asked for without ever compromising the quality. There was a well-deserved bow for designer Chris Petts (another fan) who put together the terrifying sequence of Richard Wilson changing into a gas-masked zombie in ‘The Empty Child’.
In a testament to The Mill’s commitment, nine years on the effects for ‘Bad Wolf’and ‘The Parting of the Ways’ hadn’t dated a bit and, projected onto a cinema screen, bore convincing comparison with feature films. This was Doctor Who as the fans (and Michael Grade) had always imagined it, equipped with a decent budget that provided millions of Daleks swarming through space to attack the Earth. It was like scenes from the glorious The Daleks comic strip in TV 21 had come to life.
Ahearne, Collinson, Langley and host Justin Johnson.
(Image: Richard Parker)
Director Joe Ahearne is an incredibly modest man, attributing the episodes’ success to the writing and the quality of the actors. I beg to differ: these two stories are not only two of the best Doctor Who stories ever made, but they’re a remarkable piece of television full stop. As well as being a consummate lesson in how to build suspense and an atmosphere of creeping menace, they pack a real emotional punch as Rose’s self improvement through knowing the Doctor reaches a climax as she becomes a benevolent god, ending the Time War with the Daleks (for now) and saving the Doctor’s life. If only Ahearne was working on the series now…

There’s been criticism of the Ninth Doctor that he wasn’t pro-active enough. This is completely missing the point. Doctors make people better, and the Ninth Doctor does it metaphorically to the people closest to him. Rose, Mickey (Rose’s boyfriend), Rose’s mum Jackie and Captain Jack all become better people through knowing him. Eccleston’s Doctor could be quite brutal, too, dropping Adam (Bruno Langley) when he decided there was no hope for the lad as a fellow traveller.

Langley himself (‘the companion that couldn’t’), the fourth guest today, was born in 1983 so was a latecomer to the Doctor Who world. Even so, he knew enough to be impressed by the Daleks and to know that his two episodes were part of a production that was a big deal for the BBC. He was humbled to be working with actors of the calibre of Eccleston and Piper (‘very truthful’) and was clearly delighted to be able to bring his 6 year-old son Freddy down from Manchester to see his Dad in action on the big screen.
As for the Ninth Doctor himself, Eccleston sent a touching message that host Justin Johnson read out at the beginning of today’s events:
'I love the BFI. I love the Doctor and hope you enjoy this presentation. Joe Ahearne directed five of the 13 episodes of the first series. He understood the tone the show needed completely – strong, bold, pacy visuals coupled with wit, warmth and a twinkle in the performances (missus).

If Joe agrees to direct the 100th anniversary special, I will bring my sonic and a stair-lift and – providing the Daleks don’t bring theirs – I, the Ninth Doctor, vow to save the universe and all you apes in it.'
That might be slightly paraphrased as I was writing so fast. And possibly because of the tear in my eye.  

There was another one forming when Collinson spoke about his reaction to the positive media coverage the day after ‘Rose’ was shown and he learned that 10 million viewers had watched. ‘The next morning was one of the best mornings of my life… Everybody worked so hard to make this show work… One of the best times of my life, certainly.’

That was a perfect place to end, sending the audience on a high into the three bars around the BFI Southbank. In many ways, Doctor Who’s successful relaunch in 2005 was a vindication of what us, the fans, had always believed: that the series could be a world beater if only it had the right resources, a point emphasised by the montage of classic and modern clips shown to promote the Doctor Who Prom being shown on Monday.

(Image: Betsy
Which is probably why extreme drunkenness ensued, helped along by a guest appearance from Eccleston’s leather coat in the waterfront bar. We all tried it on and had our photographs taken in it, including assistant Doctor Who Magazine editor Peter Ware and my friends Chris Petts, Richard Parker and Jo Haseltine. Just to round the evening off, when I got home I had a dream about getting drunk with Peter Capaldi.
To paraphrase Phil Collinson, we are living in the best of times.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Too old to rock and roll? Well, maybe.

As Prince once said, there comes a time in every man’s life… when you should stop trying to understand modern pop music.

Jessie J: huh? (Image: InStyle Magazine)

It’s a serious question for someone who loves music as much as me: ‘Am I too old too rock and roll?’

I’ll clarify: am I too old to watch music festivals on the telly and understand what’s going on?

What a difference a few months makes. I thoroughly enjoyed Glastonbury. But there I was, after a lively night out which involved copious amounts of Old Speckled Hen, a pickled ham and Tommy Cooper, after which I should be more receptive to the Devil’s music, and I turn on the V Festival and think: What the ****?

The Script: don’t get it, but there’s a twenty-something audience singing their heart out to their insipid lyrics. Jessie J: fair enough, the nation’s alternative sweet heart. But: why? Her lyrics register a ‘9’ on the blandometer. She might have done better stuff, but I wasn’t struck with what I heard.

Before I get accusations of ‘it was all proper bands round here when I was a lad’, Two Door Cinema Club are served up, who, according to the professional Welshman acting as compere, are ‘underrated’. Would that be because they’re not X-Factor photogenic and their lyrics are actually about something? One song and then off.

Some interminable, indecipherable DJ comes on and all I can think about is that I should probably cut my nasal hair before work on Monday.

There is hope, though. The lovely Edith Bowman, bless her, was practically melting in front of The Coolest Man In The WorldTM Idris Elba (c.f. Stringer Bell and Luther). This man is a smart 43 and still DJing at all the trendiest spots on the globe. I think Luther has got as much to do with modern policing as a turnip knows about the architecture of the Arc de Triomphe, but this man doesn’t let age hinder his hipness. Offered Doctor Who and turned it down. You can’t get cooler than that.

So there you are: some of us can ride it out, but, on the whole – and as far as I’m concerned – I’m happy in my middle-aged music ghetto with my Skids and Pogues LPs. I should have gone to a punk weekender last week but funds didn’t permit. Don’t care what anyone says, but the punk generation, who are now collecting their bus passes, can still rock. Pick at random any average 1970s’ punk band’s song and the lyrics are about something, no matter how na├»ve they might look written down.

Don’t want to get into the pointless ‘pop music was better when I were a lad’ thing, but even a song by the Leyton Buzzards tapped into something about the state of Britain when I was 17. Thing is, if you believe a lot of the antiseptic bilge produced by today’s music industry, Britain’s is now a blander, less polarised and less dangerous place. As if.

I’m out of touch musically – I stopped buying the NME years ago – but I think I can still spot the talent amongst the dreck. Step forward Miles Kane and the Arctic Monkeys, who, as I’ve said before, can write songs in the fine tradition of social-observation-with-a-tune practised by Ray Davies and Paul Weller. And, crucially, they also know the value of bespoke tailoring and a choice haircut. And look at Anthony and the Johnsons – not really my thing, but bloody individual nonetheless.

Apart from that… ****ed off I missed the B52s this week and I’m looking forward to the next Inspiral Carpets tour.

This is how it feels, indeed.

Friday, 16 August 2013



Andrew K. Shenton’s new book is a delightfully written and well-researched study of how The Prisoner impacted on television fantasy.

There’s been an awful lot written about The Prisoner, actor/writer/producer/director Patrick McGoohan’s rage against modern society and one of my favourite TV shows. I still remember the road to Damascus moment when I first saw it, alone one night in 1983, as part of the Best of British ITV season shown during that year’s Olympics. It was as significant a moment for me as seeing the Sex Pistols’ video of ‘Pretty Vacant’ on Top of the Pops a few years before. To a large extent, that first viewing influenced my wish to become a writer.

For something that only ran for 17 episodes over a few months in the late 1960s, a glance at my bookshelf reveals 14 books on The Prisoner, not counting the 3 I’ve written, as well as the 17 issue magazine collection I co-edited and contributed to with Marcus Hearn. For a series that has been so exhaustively covered, Andrew K. Shenton’s book is a pleasant surprise. Unique But Similar: The Prisoner Compared suggests a simple comparison with other TV series, but it’s more than that. It looks at The Prisoner in relation to the development of the televised fantasy fiction genre as a whole, from the time the series was first transmitted in 1967 up until its network repeat by Channel 4 in the early 1980s.

After an overview of Prisoner related literature and a definition of the series’ main themes, Shenton carries out in an analytical and very readable way a study of other shows. As the book’s title says, he looks at similarities with McGoohan’s series in the overall context of how fantasy fiction was influenced by cultural developments from the 1960s onwards. This is something I’ve always been keen on in my own writing, and Shenton not only knows his source material inside out, but has an enviable knowledge of TV fantasy in general.

For instance, I had completely missed the common ground that The Prisoner shares with the Doctor Who story ‘The Faceless Ones’, shown in the same year. (To be fair, Shelton does notably miss the very obvious similarities with the same series’ story ‘The Macra Terror’, also shown in the 1967, in which the Doctor and friends expose the oppressive forces behind a holiday camp-type Earth colony, complete with parades, slogans, chirpy radio jingles and a corrective hospital).

I’d never heard of the Look and Read schools drama Cloud Burst and Shelton’s appraisal is so good that I really want to see it now. He also highlights intriguing parallels with Gerry Anderson’s paranoid alien invaders drama UFO. Apart from the latter psychedelic episodes produced by The Prisoner’s David Tomblin, he pinpoints the unsympathetic characteristics of both the series’ Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) and McGoohan’s character, as well as common issues of mind control, state secrecy and the influence of the Cold War. His look at Terry Nation’s space opera Blake’s 7 is also enlightening, with both series’ pessimistic view of humanity and apocalyptic final episodes put under the spotlight.

Personally, I’d like to have seen pieces on the films The Wicker Man and Welcome to Blood City, both of which owe an awful lot to The Prisoner, but that’s my only real criticism. Unique But Similar: The Prisoner Compared is an excellent book that breaks new ground in the study of one of the most remarkable TV series ever made.

And I very much look forward to whatever Mr Shenton comes up with next.

The book retails at a very reasonable £8.99 and can be purchased here:

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

BFI Southbank: Patrick McGoohan

The BFI's August season on maverick talent Patrick McGoohan is well worth a visit, as it shows there was much more to the man than giant balloons and penny-farthings.

McGoohan as Brand (Image: BBC)

The BFI’s careful selection of McGoohan's films and TV programmes shows how he built a career to the point where, by 1966, he had enough influence with one of the UK’s leading showbiz impresarios to get his pet project The Prisoner made. Funded to the tune of £75,000 an episode, McGoohan had absolutely no editorial constraints from the company financing him. Not only that, but he installed himself as executive producer, writer, director and star – a unique position in television production that’s still to be bettered. 

These highlights show how he got there:

Hell Drivers (1957)

McGoohan was contracted to the Rank film company in the 1950s and Hell Drivers is one of his best outings for them. He plays the bullying Red, the pace setter and foreman for a team of itinerant lorry drivers and his performance shows how well suited he was to slightly larger than life, confrontational figures. What’s also striking, and enjoyable, about this particular film is the ensemble cast. Virtually all the male actors in it when on to become famous in the 1960s – Sean Connery (James Bond), William Hartnell (Dr Who), Sid James (Carry On), Herbert Lom (Inspector Dreyfuss in The Pink Panther films) and David McCallum (The Man from UNCLE). Gordon Jackson’s time would come at the turn of the 1970s, when he was in charge of CI5 in The Professionals. Future star spotting aside, Hell Drivers is a gritty, tense and funny thriller in its own right. The dialogue still sounds contemporary and it’s easy to imagine the film being remade today.

Brand (1959)
Henrik Ibsen’s play about an uncompromising priest made McGoohan famous when it was staged at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. The World Theatre BBC version of the play uses most of the same cast from that production so it’s as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing McGoohan’s iconoclastic stage performance. He was perfect casting as a priest who demands ‘all or nothing’ from those around him, a high price that sees him lose his son, wife and eventually the trust of the villagers he tries to minister. It’s a huge, exhausting part of King Lear proportions, but McGoohan’s power in the role never flags, the fanatical gleam in his eyes totally convincing of the demeanour of a religious zealot. With the benefit of hindsight, from this it’s easy to see how perfect McGoohan was for outsider parts in conflict with the status quo, particularly when one character shouts ‘drive him out of the village!’ On the strength of this role alone, McGoohan really should have been playing Lear for the RSC in his autumnal years.

The Quare Fellow (1963)
An adaptation of Brendan Behan’s first play, about the evils of capital punishment, as practised at an unnamed prison in Dublin. By this time McGoohan had become a skilled film actor, and he was obviously cast for the ability to say a lot through looks alone, as his dialogue as Thomas Crimmin, the new prison officer, is minimal. Witnessing the build-up to an execution, including the antics of a drunken hangman and the distraught behaviour of the condemned man’s wife (Sylvia Sims), McGoohan communicates through remarkably subtle facial expressions the disgust, distress and righteous indignation of a man exposed to a barbaric system.

There are more gems still to come:

Danger Man The film TV series that made McGoohan an international star. Showing on Friday 16 are two examples of the series, ‘The Lonely Chair’ from the 1960 half-hour series and ‘A Date with Doris’ from the show’s hour-long, mid-1960s incarnation.

Ice Station Zebra McGoohan plays another secret agent in a stirring adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s 1968 Cold War thriller, directed by John Sturges. Showing in a new print, it’s worth watching to see McGoohan act Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine off the screen.

The Best of Friends A fine late entry in McGoohan’s TV career from 1991 has him playing George Bernard Shaw opposite John Gielgud as Sir Sydney Cockerell and Wendy Hiller as Dame Laurentia MacLachlan, three friends who enjoyed a 25-year correspondence.

Check the BFI website for full details:

Monday, 5 August 2013

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor

Peter Capaldi's casting as the new Dr Who will hopefully see a return to the principles of the series' golden age.

'Listen to me, you jug-eared, tin-plated, silver cluster c***!'
The 12th man, Peter Capaldi. (Image: BBC)


Yesterday afternoon I lay on the sofa watching a tall, beaky nosed, white haired man playing Doctor Who in ‘The Ambassadors of Death’. By 7.30 that evening, I knew that a tall, beaky nosed, white haired man would be playing Doctor Who again.

This is the only time it’s ever happened, but for once the papers were right in forecasting the actor set to take over, in this case veteran Scots actor and director Peter Capaldi. If only ten people knew, as the publicity statements claimed, then somebody had obviously blabbed and presumably made a fortune. I wish I’d had the money to make a bet as I’d now be heading for the Bahamas.

BBC1’s Dr Who Live – The Next Doctor was a bit of a rum beast. This was another first, as a drama series was presented in the context of a format that closely resembled The Voice or The X Factor. I couldn’t help thinking that having the new Doctor walk out to a reception of strobing lasers, symphonic music and cheering fans would have been a bit of a gamble if – and no disrespect to him as he’s a very good actor  – Daniel Rigby had walked out instead. The BBC must have been pretty certain that Capaldi’s casting would have the desired effect.

And he’s a brilliant choice. For all the people who’ve knocked Executive Producer Steven Moffat over the last few years, he’s been brave enough to cast someone in their mid 50s; in fact, Capaldi is the same age as William Hartnell when Doctor Who started in 1963. In this anniversary year, there’s a pleasing symmetry in giving the role back to an actor of senior years and silver hair.

Casting someone older immediately changes the dynamics of the series. Gone will be the tedious flirting between the Doctor and companion – if it isn’t, it’ll look very inappropriate – and perhaps we’ll be back to a trio in the TARDIS with the addition of a younger male lead, akin to Ian Chesterton or Jamie McCrimmon, who's not surplus to requirements as the criminally wasted Arthur Darvill’s Rory was.

As a long term fan, it’s also brilliant to have an actor playing the Doctor who’s older than me again. That hasn’t happened since Paul McGann briefly took the controls of the TARDIS in 1996. Suddenly we’re all children again.

And was it just me, or were there a couple of clips from Troughton stories in Dr Who Live that I’d never seen before?

Maybe in this anniversary year, all our dreams can come true.