Doctor Who

Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]

It wasn't just Zammo...


“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”.

Killerball
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…

The New Sherlock Holmes

Kelly Reilly who plays Dr Watson’s fiancée Mary

A review in one of the broadsheets described this film as something of a cross between James Bond and The Da Vinci Code. There are certainly elements of Dan Brown and Ian Fleming in the film, but an over-simplistic summary like this doesn’t do it justice – the film has much more besides.

Given that celebrity mockney Guy “the ex-Mr Madonna” Ritichie was directing it I wasn’t expecting a literary purist’s version of the works of Conan Doyle.  In typical Ritchie style Holmes relies on brawn almost as much as brain. While not strictly based on any of the canonical Holmes stories there are shades of such gems as Scandal in Bohemia, The Valley of Fear, The Sign of Four and The Final Problem.

Downey Jr as Holmes with Jude Law as Watson

I had my doubts about the casting of Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, but was pleasantly surprised. The great Jeremy Brett he ain’t, but he does make an excellent Holmes.  Downey’s post-modern Holmes is a scruffy, unshaven character who dresses somewhat flamboyantly in an almost Byronesque manner.  Also a dashing man of action in the mould of a Victorian James Bond with the nervous energy and subtle sex appeal of David Tennant’s Dr Who.  There are perhaps one or two fight scenes and explosions too many though.  The literary Holmes was a skilled pugilist, but was rarely seen in action.  Nevetheless Downey’s Holmes has the usual remarkable powers of irritatingly logcal deduction using the flimisiest shreds of evidence to draw conclusions and is true to tradition a master of disguise.  The plot is quite far-fetched and less plausible than any of the Conan Doyle stories, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  Downey’s Holmes is also considerably less dignified than the tradional interpretations and is subjected to his fair share of humiliating experiences throughout the course of the show. One could hardly imagine, for example the likes of Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing enduring the indignity of being drugged by a temptress waking up naked chained to a bed.  But then in this digital mass-media centred world modern audiences have an increasinglsy short attention span and are this so much more demanding than their predecessors of the late 19th/early 20th century.

Jude Law puts in a decent perforamance as Holmes’ loyal  sidekick the soon-to-be married Dr John Watson.  The doctor’s dignity and domestic duties contrast well with Holmes’ eccentric uncoventioanl behaviour.

Mark Strong as the villain has the menacing presence of Bond adversaries like Blofeld and Scaramanga or Dr Who’s arch-nemesis The Master.  One of his heavies is even vaguely reminiscent of the heavily-built metal-toothed Bond assailant Jaws.   Ironically Strong’s aquiline features and neatly greased back hair give him the appearance of how Holmes himself is traditionally portrayed. If this was deliberate then it’s a stroke of genius. It it’s purely coincidental it still works.

There is also the recurring theme of Holmes constantly solving the crime before the police much to the annoyance of Scotland Yard’s incompetent Inspector Lestrade.

For some bizarre reason The Rocky Road to Dublin by The Dubliners is played over the end credits as well as during a bare knuckle fight involving Holmes and a hulking gorilla of a man. Come to think of it Conan Doyle was of Irish origin, but this is probably just coincidental. There is also a number of very minor Irish characters in the film, including Derry’s Bronagh Gallagher who makes a cameo appearance as a street fortune teller.

Kelly Reilly and Jude Law

 

Rachel McAdams as American seductress Irene Adler provides the main eye candy.  Like Holmes she is portrayed as something of an action woman in the style of Lara Croft, who becomes a third unofficial member of the Homes/Watson team during the course of their investigations.  However Watson’s fiancée, the more feminine Mary is for this author more easy on the eye.

If any 9-year olds are tempted to go down to to their local police station in order to settle an argument with a schoolfriend as to the real existence of Sherlock Holmes (although as the film has a “12” certificate this shouldn’t be the case!) the standard disclaimer at the end should put their minds at rest “The characters in this motion picture are fictional and any resemblance to any real characters living or dead is purely coincidental”. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Pun very much intentional.

There is a very strong hint of sequel in the making, which I very much look forward to should it go ahead.  Despite a few forgiveable deviations from the literary Sherlock Holmes Downey has certainly proved his credentials as one of the three great iconic characters of popular fiction. He’s probably a little too old to play James Bond, but if Doctor Who ever transfers to the big screen…

The Doctor Who does this woman’s work

 1981_farewell-tomThanks 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.

Davos: Daleks plot to exterminate world economy

The World Economic Forum at Davros

The World Economic Forum at Davros

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?

 

Intellectual Public Property

The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine has compiled a list of the top 100 public intellectuals. The criteria are defined simply as influential thinkers who feature prominently in public life beyond the borders of their native countries. Although such lists are generally to be taken with a pinch of salt and usually heavily biased, they do nevertheless make interesting reading. The usual suspects from a wide variety of fields are there – Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Joe Ratzinger (aka Pope Benny XVI), Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk and Steven Pinker among others.  I’m not sure if Salman Rushdie deserves a place in the top 100 though. He’s highly overrated as a novelist, let alone a great intellectual.

The compilers have deliberately tried to be as balanced as possible – the list contians both the atheist and the beliver (Dawkins and the Pope), the Israeli and the Palestinian (Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh), the neo-con and the leftist (Francis Fukuyama and Chomksy) – and for the sake of political correctness the token black African is Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.
There is of course an emphasis on the word “public” here, suggesting that there is an infinite number of private intellectuals out there who are brilliant thinkers, but choose to stay out of the public eye.  Or maybe they just blog.  Top 100 private intellectuals anyone? Top 20 intellectuals within the Irish blogosphere? Any suggestions?
 
One major criticism I have about Foreign Policy’s list is that it leaves some of the world’s finest orators and people of letters –  intellectual heavyweights like Wayne Rooney, Katie Price and George W. Bush all fail to make the top 100.  Scandalous.

YOU COULDN’T MAKE IT UP

Gerry Moriarty in today’s Irish Times reports on Ian Paisley’s retirement from politics:

“Peter [the Punt/Hands (and feet) across the border] Robinson delivered the introduction, which was followed by a video of the Big Man’s life and time, climaxing with the fanfare of Dr Paisley walking slowly into the hall for a rapturous reception to the tune of the spring section of Four Seasons by Vivaldi (a Catholic priest).”

 

AND FINALLY…

          

Sontaran                                 Avram Grant

Is it just me, or does recently deposed former Chelsea boss Avram Grant bear an uncanny resemblance to one of Dr Who’s old adversaries the Sontarans, a cloned warrior caste race from the planet Sontara, perpetually engaged in a millenia-old war of attrition with their sworn enemies the Rutans?

OK, maybe it is just me then.