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.

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