Tuesday, 8 October 2013

BFI Southbank: Paul McGann


BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 5 October 2013











Courtesy of the BFI, it’s about time for a reappraisal of the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, with two panels: one on the ‘interregnum’ years and the other with actors Paul McGann and Daphne Ashbrook, together with their director Geoffrey Sax.


As this entry in the Doctor Who at 50 season took place at the atypical, Friday-night-stop-out-frightening hour of 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, it was perhaps fitting that the event was a celebration of Paul McGann’s atypical Eighth Doctor who, depending on who you ask, is either ‘the Gorge Lazenby of the Time Lords’ or ‘the longest and the shortest’ to occupy the title role.

Rewind to 1996. My girlfriend and I, together with some mates, had been to Brighton over the May bank holiday during which McGann’s debut had been screened, so we’d missed the BBC1 transmission. I’d bought the Doctor Who TV movie on VHS to allow for our South Coast visit, so on Sunday (I think) we all piled into the front room of our shared flat in Balham to watch it. A friend who shall remain nameless was rather drunk and did nothing but loudly criticise the film from start to finish. Ultimately, he didn’t like it because ‘it wasn’t ‘70s’ (whatever that means) and stayed up to watch ‘Pyramids of Mars’ after everyone else had gone to bed in a huff.

In the intervening years I haven’t watched the TV movie that much. My main feeling about it, pre-2005, was that McGann, Daphne Ashbrook (‘Grace Holloway’) and Eric Roberts (‘The Master’) were all great but the script fell apart in the final reel. In short, it was a (qualified) triumph of style over content.

Watching it again on Saturday, I was struck by how much of the content became part of the BBC Wales revival – and I don’t just mean the design of the impressively spacious TARDIS control room. 70% location filming, set-piece stunts, sexualised Time Lords and a will-they, won’t-they? light romance with the companion have been constants since Doctor Who was revived by the BBC. Above all, the way the camera prowls and roves fluidly across the sets and locations in a stunningly cinematic way – from overhead, ground level and in acute angles during close-ups and long shots – make the TV movie the first truly 21st century-style Doctor Who to have been made. It’s no wonder that director Geoffrey Sax was asked to helm the first few Christopher Eccleston epsiodes – something I was unaware of until today – as the modern version of the series takes all its production cues from the 1996 TV movie: i.e. to look like a big budget American film series.  

We were lucky enough to have two panels today. The first was preceded by a chat with Seventh Doctor script editor Andrew Cartmel, who had been unable to attend his era’s BFI event. Dryly witty as ever, he commented that the behind the scenes manoeuvring within the upper echelons of the BBC that ended Doctor Who made ‘the Medici princes look like a support group.’ This led into a full panel, nominally titled ‘The Wilderness Years’ (a controversial handle which several people, including Paul McGann, good naturedly took issue with).

This was one of the biggest panels Doctor Who at 50 has yet fielded. The guests were Cartmel, Nick Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery (producers of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range), Gary Russell (Big Finish and Doctor Who Monthly), Justin Richards (consultant editor on the Doctor Who novels) and Marcus Hearn (ex-Doctor Who Monthly and author of the 50th anniversary book The Vault, which he signed copies of in the BFI shop).

Daphne Ashbrook and Paul McGann (Image: Cameron K. McEwan)

It’s a testament to the BFI’s commitment to the accuracy of Doctor Who’s social history, that media historian Dick Fiddy chaired a panel that covered a 16-year period when only 90 minutes of new Doctor Who was made and transmitted. It was an important period, though. Unlike other fandoms (Fiddy name checked Star Trek and The Prisoner), the Doctor’s fan organisations created ‘an entire generation of people making Doctor Who today’. This includes Russell T.  Davies, Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat, who all wrote Doctor Who fiction before they worked on the series proper. Among their ranks was also one Peter Capaldi, a gifted illustrator who drew the cover of one the fan magazines back in the 1970s.

What emerged from the absorbing discussion was that while various BBC executives had wanted shot of the series, BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm, saw the value in keeping the brand (before such a marketing term had even been coined) alive, but it through books, audio plays or a monthly magazine. There was praise, too, for 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner, who had tacitly turned a blind eye to the copyright-surfing fanzine culture, which produced most of the people who went on to work on Doctor Who merchandise in a professional capacity.

After the customary quiz – this week’s joke prize: DVDs of the final season of The A-Team. Fiddy: ‘I get the impression [Justin’s] clearing out his loft’ – it was time for the main panel of the day with Ashbrook, McGann and Sax, with co-host Justin Johnson once again moderating.

What was striking, not to mention vaguely alarming, was how quickly the TV movie was put together. Having accepted the director’s job in October 1995, Sax arrived in Vancouver the following January to discover that sets were already being built; in normal circumstances, construction wouldn’t have been approved until the director had assessed the production designs. Disarmingly, Sax revealed that he had been the director of choice by both the Fox network and the BBC and that he was glad he didn’t have time to immerse himself in the show’s history, ‘because I would have had a stroke at that point.’

Perhaps because of the time pressure on the TV movie – shot in an astonishing 28 short days – a warm camaraderie endures between the three principals. A laid back and gently mocking McGann recalled trying to bring Daphne Ashbrook up to speed, with help from Sylvester McCoy, on Doctor Who’s history during breaks in filming. For her part, she wanted to play the part of the Grace as she felt the script ‘was different’ to anything she’d been offered before. The audience laughed heartily when told that McCoy, after he saw the kiss between the Doctor and Grace being filmed, made one of his typically tongue-in-cheek comments: ‘That’ll go down well.’

(Image: Big Finish)

Although at the time not that well versed in Doctor Who lore, McGann has, in the years since the TV movie was made, come to adore the character through his performances for Big Finish, revelling in a Doctor who is ‘partly a fugitive, driven, very alone [but] heartfelt’. With Briggs and Haigh-Ellery, he’s been able to explore areas of the character that he initially discussed with the movie’s executive producer Philip Segal when a full series was a possibility. Intriguingly, he revealed that the way he really wanted his Doctor to dress wasn’t a million miles from Eccleston (‘the bin man’): leather jacket, jeans and DM boots, a wish that Big Finish have recently granted (left).

The pleasant Saturday morning was brought to a close with traditional open mic questions from the audience, during which the same little scamp who was in last week’s Tennant screening asked Daphne if Paul was a good kisser. Her funny, floundering, response: ‘It was, it was… yes.’

After Paul saluted the audience with a very showman-like ‘And a big thanks to you!’, it was time to either scrum down in the queues for signed merchandise or decamp to the bar as the metaphorical sun was over the yard arm. As we whiled away the hours to 6 o’clock when I had to retire rather tired and emotional, I kept reflecting on Sax’s last words on the TV movie: ‘[It was] a bit of a tightrope act – it had to appeal to a new audience in North America and remain interesting to an audience back home who’d followed it for thirty years.’ A testament to the love, care and attention that went into something that was initially seen as a misfire has certainly paid off all these years later. McGann is now as much a part of Doctor Who as Tom Baker or Matt Smith and the series is really beginning to break America, as can be seen in its cover-star status on Entertainment USA and Time magazine (this November).

That’s Doctor Who for you. It can always turn what looks like defeat into long term victory.

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