In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy…
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[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]
“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”
Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent
Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.
It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.
One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.
I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.
One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.
The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.
Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.
It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.
It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.
However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.
One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.
He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.
Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.
Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.
At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…
I’ll probably never forgive chief Doctor Who scriptwriter Stephen Moffatt for turning the show’s eponymous time lord hero into an irritating floppy-haired indie boy twat by casting Matt Smith in the role. I’ve got nothing against the boy Smith – he’s not a bad actor and would probably make an excellent Harry Potter or Peter Pan, but as far as I’m concerned he’s just not Dr Who material. A trendy young actor fresh out of drama school who’s down with the kids and looks like a 16-year old can never adequately replace the likes of David Tennant, Chris Ecclestone, Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee among others (Note I’ve deliberately omitted Sylvester McCoy from the list and I wouldn’t include in the “others” category either). And think of all the good actors out there who could have made an excellent Doctor – Paterson Joseph*, Paddy Considine, David Morrissey – or if the BBC could ever afford him – Robert Downey Jr – to name but a few. But then maybe that’s just a reflection of my age.
When I heard that the very same Moffatt was involved in a new modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes for the BBC I feared the worst. The fact that up-and-coming young actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes bears a passing resemblance to the boy Smith did little to quell my apprehension.
Many devoted Sherlockians would consider this attempt to modernise Holmes as nothing short of blasphemy. But remember the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s when Holmes and Watson were outwitting the Nazis. And consider James Bond, essentially a cold war figure of the 1950s and ‘60s, yet the nmakers of the franchise have constantly been able to reinvent him to suit the zeitgeist – albeit not always with positive results.
In this new 21st century Holmes Martin “Tim from The Office” Freeman has already committed a sacrilege by being the first Dr Watson not to have a moustache. But maybe a cleanshaven Watson is simply a sign of the times. Back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras moustaches were considered respectable and adorned the upper lips of statesmen, generals, writers, academics, explorers, accomplished sportsmen and other distinguished gentlemen. Since then however they have come to be associated with dictators, 1970s porn film actors, lower division footballers, unscrupulous salesmen and RUC men.
A Brief Pictorial History of The Decline and Fall of the Moustache in Respectable Society:
The essential characteristics of the Doyle books remain intact however. The Baker Street address is the same, Watson is a military doctor returned from the latest campaign in Afghanistan. And there’s even a tenuous link to Doctor Who. Mrs Hudson, Holmes and Watson’s landlady is played by Una Stubbs, who played Aunt Sally, the love interest of Worzel Gummidge in the TV series of the early 1980s. Gummidge was played by Jon Pertwee who also played the third version of Dr Who. Pertwee was succeeded by Tom Baker as Who who went on to play Sherlock Holmes in a BBC version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Full circle indeed.
Holmes now lives in a world where horse-drawn carriages and telegrams have been replaced by black cabs, mobile phones, e-mail and websites. Cocaine replaced by nicotine patches. His importance as one of the most famous fictional detectives cannot be underestimated. Sir Arthur’s creation, although merely one of many similar characters of the era, many of whom have since been long forgotten set the template for Marple, Poirot, Columbo, Morse and other icons of detective fiction and TV.
But is it really necessary to resurrect as a present day consulting detective of the early 21st century?
Should Holmes be left alone and kept within his own era for the benefit of the literary purists?
Or is he a flexibly timeless character who could happily exist any time in world history?
I’m not quite sure where I stand on this, but might have a better idea of my position in a few weeks time. Having seen the first episode I thought it wasn’t bad, but I’ll reserve full and proper judgement until I’ve seen at least another instalment.
The new series has nevertheless left me intrigued. I’m thinking of submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police for access to the case files of Sherlock Holmes.
* Incidentally had Paterson Joseph landed the role of Doctor Who, he wouldn’t (contrary to popular belief) have been the first black Doctor, as this little gem below made c. 1985, but set in 2010 proves:
According to The Dreaming Arm the Holy Trinity of iconic characters in popular fiction (at least in the English-speaking world anyway) consists of James Bond, Doctor Who (and if any pedantic anoraks are reading this – before you write in to complain, yes I know his name is actually “The Doctor” and not “Dr Who” – so please self-copulate), and Sherlock Holmes. I can’t speak for the French-speaking world, but their Holy Trinity could be something like Tintin, Maigret and Asterix – ironically the former two are not of France, but of its trilingual neighbour to the north-east, whose other contributions to civilisation include fine chocolates, several hundred varieties of beer of multitudinous colours and flavours, quality lace, a dubious colonial legacy in the Congo, whose effects are still being felt today – and a statue of a urinating boy.
But as a certain diminutive bespectacled golf-playing entertainer and former star of a long-forgotten 1980s sitcom which gave the catchphrase “Language Timothy!” to a dysfunctional generation used to say – “I digress”. Anyway I’ve already written about Who and Bond in this blog, so to coincide with the imminent cinematic release of a new eponymously-titled motion picture this is The Dreaming Arm’s take on Sherlock Holmes.
I remember having an argument when aged 8 or 9 with a schoolfriend by the name of Paul McGrade over whether Sherlock Holmes had been a real life character. I contended that he was purely a work of fiction, but young McGrade insisted that there had been a real Holmes at some point in time. In an attempt to settle the argument he advised me to pop down to the local police station and ask them to verify the past existence or otherwise of the great detective. I was confident in my assertion, so didn’t bother to take him up on this. But over a quarter of a century later I often wonder what the duty sergeants at the heavily fortified Omagh RUC station would have made of a 9-year old making such an enquiry. The image of a tall ruddy-faced moustached man sternly dismissing me with words to the effect of “Fuck away off, son and don’t be wasting my time!” provides many an amusing moment on these cold dark lonely winter nights. In fact it’s becoming a rather tiresome running joke – as certain nameless individuals will be able to testify.
However to his credit some 5 or 6 years later the redoubtable Mr McGrade was to pen an excellent parody of a Holmes short story which captured the essence of Conan Doyle’s writing, yet sent it in up brilliant satirical style. To this day I think he could have been a great comedy writer (he also scripted an excellent monologue featuring the Hary Enfield character “Loadsamoney” for a 5th year school assembly, in which the cash-flashing tradesman was played by the present author), but I believe he’s now based in Westminster and doing rather well in the civil service.
I first became seriously interested in Sherlock Holmes at the age of 14 or 15 in 1988 or 1989 I think when the centenary of Conan Doyle’s character was being celebrated through various TV and radio documentaries, newspaper articles and the like. My unhealthy anorak-like obsession with Doctor Who was coming to a natural end (after all this was during the era of Sylvester McCoy when the show was at all-time low point) and the more mature and rational Holmes became the natural replacement. I devoured Silver Blaze, The Yellow Face, The Solitary Cyclist, The Engineer’s Thumb and The Hound of the Baskervilles with relish.
When I heard that the ex-Mr Madonna Guy Ritchie, he of the East End gangster film was making a new version of Holmes I was somewhat skeptical. I haven’t seen any of Ritichie’s previous works as the mockney hard bastard genre of film doesn’t generally butter my bread. Plus anyone who marries Madonna needs their head examined.. Although having said that it hasn’t done Sean Penn’s career any harm.
On hearing that Holmes was to be played by the high profile Hollywood actor and rehabilitated hell-raising former jailbird and ex-junkie Robert Downey Jr I had my concerns. Although Jude Law as Dr Watson seems like a safe choice, Downey marks a notable break in tradition considering that Holmes has traditionally been played by old school English character actors from the theatrical tradition. The most memorable is arguably Jeremy Brett who played the great detective in the Granada TV series during the 1980s and early ’90s. The Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Phil “the Austro-Hungarian empre got all the best cities” Larkin has described him as the definitive Holmes. I can see his point here as Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a brooding misanthropic, asexual character with a brilliant mind, suggesting he’s autistic is remarkably close to the perfection of Doyle’s creation. Brett as the genuine article could thus be to Holmes what Sean Connery is to James Bond and what Tom Baker is to Dr Who – although the chances are that anyone 25 reading this will argue that the latter accolade should go to David Tennant. Nah – Tennant’s a great actor, but his Who couldn’t hold a candle to Baker’s Who.
Other fine thespians who have darkened the doorstep of 221B Baker Street include Ian Richardson (probably best known for his role as machievellian politician Urquart in the BBC drama House of Cards), Hammer Horror veterans Peter “Dr Frankenstein/Prof Van Helsing” Cushing and Christopher “Dracula/Lord Summerisle” Lee and even a certain curly-haired, goggle-eyed toothy-grinned, long scarf-wearing, rich mellow chocolatey-voiced former Time Lord and occasional voiceover artist known as Tom Baker.
Nevertheless I’m prepared to make the trip to my local picture house at some point over the Christmas/New Year period with an open mind and give “Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” a chance.
So watch this space for the verdict!
Thanks to “SillySteve2006” for coming up with the ingenious idea of posting this rather moving clip on Youtube. It’s the last moments of Tom Baker as Doctor Who accompanied by the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work“.
Picture the scene – it’s 1981 and the tall curly haired goggle-eyed, toothy-grinned man, who a generation of children has come to know as the hero of Saturday evening TV has just plunged to his imminent death from a radio telescope in the process of saving the universe yet again.
And now he’s about to morph into that vet from “All Creatures Great & Small”.
OK, so at the end of the day in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal. All that’s happened is that the lead actor in a children’s TV show is being replaced by another actor. But when seen in conjunction with the song, which is poignant and moving enough in its own right, it stirs certain emotions in the listener/viewer. We get the apocalyptic sense that this is truly the end of an era. The song is actually about pregnancy and childbirth and the traumas and emotional pain involved, a theme which fits in nicely with the regeneration of a dying Time Lord and the beginning of a new life. The Doctor’s battered body lies prostrate on the ground as he sees flashbacks of old friends calling out his name while Kate mournfully wails about all the things she should have said but didn’t say and urges him not to die, citing “I know you have a lot of strength left, I know you have a little life left in you” – brilliant:
No doubt something similar will occur when David Tennant, probably the most popular Tardis pilot since Tom Baker morphs into the controversially chosen Matt Smith. But it just won’t be the same.
But this blog posting isn’t really about Dr Who or Kate Bush, but about how childhood memories, certain powerful and evocative pieces of music or film can trigger off strong emotions in the human mind. The real video for the song, featuring Kate herself alongside Tim “Percy/Captain Darling from Blackadder” McInnerney can be viewed here. I would defy anyone to play it without being moved in some way.
But then maybe it just affects 36-year old batchelors with too much time on their hands. “Batchelor?” I hear you cry in amazement. Well, I write a blog and I like Dr Who. Go figure as the Americans would say.
Could it be pure coincidence that the recent World Economic Forum was hosted by Davros, megalomanical genius, crippled mad scientist and creator of the universe’s most evil creatures the daleks?
It all makes sense now. The world recession and credit crunch were engineered by Davros and his minions as part of an evil masterplan to bankrupt the planet’s economy and thus conquer the earth and absorb it into the glorious dalek empire!
Now if the only a certain Time Lord were around to save the world. Just where is the Doctor when you need him?