Yearly Archives: 2014

Episode 9



In the lounge at a friend’s flat I saw two massive floor-to-ceiling bookcases, separated by a chimney. The left hand bookcase contained every single Star Trek novel ever written and the right hand bookcase contained every single Doctor Who novel ever written. This was twenty years ago so I suppose he has had to buy new bookcases since. I whispered to Paul Cornell that this was the worst library I had ever laid eyes on and Paul laughed like anything, though a couple of his books were in the right-hand bookcase.

If you type ‘Star Trek’ into the books section of Amazon US, over 21,000 titles come up, a lot of them fiction. Even allowing that many of these are different printings of the same book, the quantity of Star Trek novels must have crawled well into four figures. Has anyone got through them all? It’s possible. I guess many Star Trek readers read Star Trek novels exclusively. This is not unique to Star Trek readers. There are lots of readers of ‘cozy mysteries’, in which little old ladies solve murders in villages, who only ever read cozy mysteries but read an awful lot of them. There are romance readers who read only Harlequins but get through a hundred and fifty in a year.

I should say at once that I have no opinion about these Star Trek novels, having never read any. I am fully prepared to believe that I would enjoy the Doctor Who ones and as a number of them have been written by friends and acquaintances I hope I would.

As I said last time, if you have ever read a TV novel you cannot afford to be snobbish. Still…
Another friend, recently visiting her father in Maine, decided to clear out her teenage bedroom, and came back to Connecticut with several boxes of books to give away. Most of these were steamy historical romances of a kind for which there is a huge market, ‘civilIzed’ women in past times having passionate affairs with ‘outsider’ men, Apaches, Highlanders, who are rugged and randy and yet startlingly gentle, though like Mr Rochester they must be physically damaged near the end to be tame enough for marriage vows. But there were four Star Trek novels too. I flicked one open, and this was the first sentence I saw:
Uhura blinked her eyes.
Bloody hell! Uhura blinked her eyes?? Well, she didn’t blink her ear lobes, did she? Or her nipples? The sentence should obviously have been:
Uhura blinked.
And even if extra words were needed, though they aren’t, the sentence should have been:
Uhura blinked her eyelids!
Because eyes cannot blink, any more than ear lobes or nipples!

That a professional writer wrote this and a professional editor let it go seemed to me depressing. Uhura blinked her eyes. Dear me. And I should add that this book appeared not as a paperback original but as an expensive hardcover.
I have mentioned this sentence once or twice to people and have been surprised to find they are less horrified then I am. I wouldn’t even have noticed that, said one. I don’t think it’s that bad, said another.

I think my objection is that it is not interestingly bad. There is no leap of imagination. It is not reaching for anything. It is not writing at all, it is typing. I was tweeted about a Dallas novel where oil is described as black semen. That is very very very (ad infinitum) bad indeed but there is at least a thought in it, an image in it. Yes, a very very (ad infinitum) bad and unsuccessful and rather embarrassing one, but a thought.
Uhura blinked her eyes.

Say it aloud. It refuses to lift off. It is hopelessly leaden. It manages to be really bad and utterly nothing at the same time. Ah well.

But the oak tree which is the ginormous Star Trek book industry was once a little acorn, as in the beginning all such industries are. In 1967, it was decided by someone at Bantam Books in New York that a slim volume based on Star Trek might bring in a bit of money, joining that large pile of other telly books I wrote about last time. He or she can’t have had a clue what was being started. However, instead of doing either ‘original’ novels or full-length novelizations, the decision was made to turn a selection of scripts into a volume of short stories. This was a terrific idea: a forty-five minute TV programme is much nearer to a short story than a novel.

The man commissioned for these adaptations was the memorably named James Blish, and as always how and why he came to be chosen remains a mystery. He had been writing science fiction for decades and one of his novels, A Case of Conscience, was what Victoria Wood might call a totally bona fono classic of the genre. He was also well known for having informed Star Trek contributor Harlan Ellison that one of Ellison’s early pulp magazine stories, The Glow Worm, was the single worst story ever written. Ellison, who adored Blish, relished this anecdote, narrating it in several essays.
Blish was a strange choice in at least one respect: he lived in Britain, and had never seen Star Trek, which would not find its way to the BBC until 1969, by which time it had already been scrapped in America. It was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, as a replacement for Doctor Who after The War Games, where it was hugely popular. Irritatingly, it was far more popular than Doctor Who, though not half as good. Still, it was science fiction, so I decided to like it.

I assume that the first book was meant as a one-off. Neither Blish nor Bantam could have expected it to do much business. As we now know it sold by the truckload. In reprints its title was changed from simply Star Trek to Star Trek One, and Star Trek Two arrived soon after, then Three and Four. The first volume that came into my hands was Star Trek Five, which had already been reprinted several times.( Even as an eleven year old, I read copyright pages, which was a bit weird of me.)

If James Blish ever became tired of turning out Star Trek adaptations, he never said so. He went on writing them and indeed died quite young in the middle of Star Trek Twelve, which his wife completed. Each book included an introduction. These grew longer as the series went on and were extremely friendly and chatty. I liked the introductions as much as the stories. Blish was very grateful for all the attention. He said that his Star Trek books had brought him more fan mail than all his other books combined. This conjured a picture of his house in England being inundated with sacks of mail, like movie stars. James Blish seemed to be a pal. I remember being shocked when the introduction to Twelve told us he had died.

Early on, I found the stories quite difficult to read. I realize now that Blish was writing for older readers. Doctor Who novels were essentially boys’ books. You found them on the children’s shelves. For Star Trek, when not spotted randomly on one of those spinners, (where I saw Star Trek Five, in a stationers,) you had to go to the science fiction department. In buying these books you felt quite grown up. It was like drinking beer.
Blish used American English, which can create confusion in a young mind.
To any child in Britain, a cot is what in the US is called a crib, a place where babies go to sleep. It has guard rails on all four sides. Sometimes a cot is pink and sometimes it is blue. In Star Trek Five, an elegant woman came aboard the enterprise and said she needed to lie down. She was taken to what Blish called a cot. I found this deeply bizarre and even a bit disturbing. Surely she was too tall for a cot. Her head would have to be propped uncomfortably against the top rail, and her feet would have to hang over the bottom rail. This bothered me so much I was unable to finish the story. I kept thinking about this poor woman squashed into a cot. Why did she not go to bed, like all normal adults? When the episode in question was repeated, I saw that she did indeed lie on a bed, albeit not a very comfortable one. Star Trek beds never looked comfortable.

Blish remarked that sometimes there were discrepancies between his stories and the episodes. He told us that this was because he worked from an early script, and sometimes changes were made before getting to the studio floor. This perhaps gives them, even now, some documentary interest for the right person. Frankly, I never knew the TV series in enough detail to catch the differences. But, as my teens wound on I acquired all these books and read and enjoyed most of them. They were tight and swift.

In the mid-seventies new episodes of Star Trek appeared on BBC 1, in cartoon form. It may surprise Americans who think of these as Saturday morning fare to hear that they were shown in the UK between seasons of Doctor Who, at 5:15 or thereabouts on a Saturday evening, roughly the same slot as the earliest Treks. Essentially, they were given to us as a fourth season, albeit produced in a different manner. God knows what they were like – they were never repeated in Britain, as far as I’m aware – but at the time I found them pretty exciting. On American Saturday morning TV, they must have seemed like Ibsen.

These episodes joined the ranks of Star Trek novelizations, written by someone called Alan. Though the cartoons were half the length of the live action stories, the adaptations were double the length. I bought a few – ‘Star Trek Logs’, as they were called – but read only one or two stories. For the most part, they joined the pile of unread TV books in my bedroom.

But there was a large pile of much more fabulous books based on a much more fabulous programme which did get read, many times. As I gobbled up Target books like they were ice cream, I didn’t imagine that one far-flung day I would be paid a pleasing sum of money to sit in a rather plush studio with a producer the other side of the glass and read two of these marvellous little volumes into a microphone…

Episode 8



My partner’s cousin lived his adult life at the intersection of the New York literary, gay and bohemian scenes. He was a professor at Fordham University and a regular contributor to the Village Voice. For a while he was an editor at the Voice’s literary supplement. He wrote a substantial, scholarly volume on 200 years of horror fiction and a history of pornography. He compiled a collection of literary letters. I did not meet him – he died shortly before I arrived in the US – but I went to his memorial service, where the main speaker was the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

The oeuvre of this gifted, cerebral man includes one distinct oddity. It is a 1978 novelization of a TV movie called A Fire in the Sky, starring Richard Crenna. Published as a paperback original, this is ‘based upon a story by Paul Gallico,’ so it is an adaptation of an adaptation. On the cover a comet plummets towards a populous city. Above the title are these words: ‘Seven days for creation… Twelve minutes for annihilation!’ On the back, even more breathlessly, ‘A Terrifying Novel of Cosmic Destruction!’

The book is a decent example of the TV novelization. The writing is efficient, plain, a bit characterless. Three sentences picked at random:
The city of Phoenix lay sprawled across the desert, wide open to the sky. They were all distinguished men, the most powerful men in the state, and none of them knew why Governor Ritchie had asked them to come there. Paula put a hand on each of Tom’s wiry arms and made him look in her eyes.

Those of us who are familiar with this strange, ignored genre have read similar sentences ten thousand times.

I am curious as to how this professional academic, a rather forbidding personality I’m told, came to write a TV novelization. He never wrote another. I suppose, in 1978, he was newly arrived in the city and needed the money, though I can’t imagine there was much of an advance. Did he meet an editor at a party? Or did an agent propose him for the job? Did he have to compete for it? These questions will have to remain unanswered.

The book now has that distinctive fragrance of all aging American paperbacks. The pages are browning and brittle. I wonder how many copies were sold? I can’t imagine it was in shops for very long. It was scarcely less disposable than a newspaper.

It led to me to wonder when the genre of the ‘novelization’ first came about. Of course, one way or another adaptation has been the lifeblood of the arts forever. Greek plays were variations on other Greek plays. Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from numerous text sources, both fictional and non-fictional, old poems, stories, even other plays. And I don’t know what Verdi’s Otello is if it is not an ‘operaization’ of the play.

In the nineteenth century, when the novel was king, the stream flowed to other media. Theatre producers staged unauthorized productions of Dickens’ serials, complete with happy endings, long before the serial had concluded, long before, in fact, Dickens had decided his characters’ fates. And if you could not afford the high price of a shilling for each monthly part of Nicholas Nickleby by the real Charles ‘Boz’ Dickens, there was a low-grade rip-off called The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleberry by ‘Bos’, obtainable for only a penny or two per episode. It was damn near to being a novelization of a novel!

But I think the first real ‘novelization’, the making of a book out of a success from another medium, must have been J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which appeared in 1911, seven years after Peter Pan, the Boy Who Never Grew Up, had first been staged as a play.

Then came film. From the silent era well into the forties there were regular ‘photoplay editions’, usually reprints of old novels accompanied by photos from the film version, but sometimes novelizations. The novel of Metropolis was an adaptation by Fritz Lang’s wife. I have a copy from my mother’s library of the photoplay edition of A Matter of Life and Death, one of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces, and this too is an adaptation. Graham Greene wrote what might be considered ‘reverse novelizations.’ Commissioned to write a screenplay, he produced a novella first, essentially a detailed outline, setting out the situation, the characters, the atmosphere, some of the dialogue. The Third Man is the most famous example. The literary version was never meant for publication, though it eventually appeared as ‘the book of the film’. Greene’s 1948 novella for an unmade film project, The Tenth Man, was discovered in the nineteen eighties in a vault at MGM and published with a great deal of fanfare. (Rightly, it’s great.)

Even in the age of home video and DVDs, there have continued to be adaptations of films, though fewer. I recently saw a novelization of a new Godzilla film. No-one who has ever read a novelization can afford to be snobbish, but I do wonder who will read this.

Curiously, this kind of book almost wholly bypasses radio. There is no evidence that, for example, the millions of people who have tuned into The Archers for nigh on sixty years have any yearning to read novels about them. There were a few novels about the detective Paul Temple during his radio years, but many more during his TV years. In America, there were no Gunsmoke novels when it was the most popular radio drama of its day, but several when it moved to TV. In fact, there were Gunsmoke novels into the 21st century. For most of us the Western is moribund, but in pockets of the US it is still booming.

There is the unique figure of Julian MacLaren Ross, a notorious Fitzrovia drunk of the forties and fifties, who remains a legend to his small following and forgotten by everyone else. He wrote some brilliant books and stories and was tipped for literary stardom, but was so unreliable and, when drunk, so boring that his career fizzled. His last few books are hasty adaptations of his own radio thrillers. He must be the only writer tipped as a major literary talent to end his booze-sodden career doing novelizations.

By the fifties TV programmes had been drawn into this industry, though the first TV paperbacks that I am aware of, the original Quatermass trilogy, which came from the respectable imprint of Penguin books, were not novelizations at all, but printings of Nigel Kneale’s scripts. Even if you have the extant episodes on DVD, these are worth reading.
There is a bit of a blur between the novelization – a rendering of a script into book form – and an original novel ‘based on’ a series. The’ original novel’ was the more common approach. Generally, not always, books commissioned in America, even if drawn from British series like The Avengers, consisted of new material and books from London were renderings of scripts – Space:1999, (very well done by, among others, the impossibly prolific science fiction writer E C Tubb,) The Persuaders!, (by the man who wrote the war film 633 Squadron,) The Protectors, The New Avengers. Occasionally, a scriptwriter adapted his own script, which leant his book (to me, at least) an air of greater legitimacy: Kneale novelized the last of the Quatermass quartet. P J Hammond reworked his own Sapphire and Steel script. To The Manor Born was novelized by Peter Spence, complete with extra jokes.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, there were ‘original novels’ of Danger Man, Bonanza, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O, Land of the Giants and, incredibly, of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. There was a long series based on The Man from UNCLE. (It is revealing than one of the men who wrote for UNCLE later wrote The Partridge Family.) There was a Columbo novel which said on the cover it was based on an episode, but it wasn’t.
In my teens I tried some of these ‘original novels’: one about Hawaii Five-O, God knows why, of which I only remember frequent mentions of women’s breasts and buttocks, which seemed pretty raunchy. This was the first time I had read a novel with the word ‘buttocks’ in it. A twelve-year-old boy, who could not get away with reading Playboy on the train, could happily read a Hawaii Five-O novel without anyone batting an eyelid, though buttocks swirled around the page. (Later, I knew a slightly staid fellow who was shocked that one of the first ‘original’ Doctor Who novels mentioned a woman’s “erect nipples”.) I tried several of The Avengers novels. I tried a Man from UNCLE novel, though I had never seen an episode and still haven’t.

These books seemed somewhat flat and lifeless to me. They tended not to get the tone of the programmes quite right, as if the writers had not watched them, but nor did they become interesting in themselves. One sensed these novelists were bored, and so was I. I never got to the end of a single one, not even the Hawaii Five-O one with the buttocks, though in my adult life I am a dedicated finisher of books.

But TV novels are 100% critic proof and this is a part of their charm. In the fifties, the American writer Gore Vidal turned temporarily to mystery fiction after the New York Times refused to review his serious novels on account of their gay content. As Vidal said, literary writers needed reviews to survive, genre writers, especially writers of paperback originals, whose books were found on spinners at railway stations and in supermarkets, didn’t. The TV novel, like low-grade erotica and Harlequin/Mills and Boon romances, neither needed nor wished for reviews. You bought them on an impulse because you liked the programme. Simple as that. You probably didn’t even read the puff on the back.
But there were other books from the telly, much much better books, which I was able to finish. Someone in a New York publishing house decided to grace the world with Star Trek novelizations, and someone in London decided… well… Next time.

Episode 7



I was pleased to see on an episode of QI that Stephen Fry thinks that the long-running detective programme ‘Columbo’ is possibly the best TV series ever. It is always good when Stephen Fry agrees with you. It makes you feel smart.
And Stephen Fry is right. ‘Columbo’ is brilliant, the format unique, the scripts excellent. The masterful lead actor turned in surely the finest series performance of its time, one which in both attention to detail and sustained quality has scarcely been matched since. Peter Falk was a one-eyed actor playing a two-eyed character and that, as Stephen Fry said, gives you a clue as to how good he was.

Falk played the character first in a 1968 TV movie, then in another one-off movie, before ‘Columbo’ became a series in 1971. This ran for seven seasons. He returned to the role in 1989, and made at least a special or two most years until 2003. He played the character across 24 years of a 37 year period in a total of 69 films. The character became instantly famous, and pretty much anybody could do their own little Columbo impersonation. But the sheer charm of the performance and, now, its familiarity, makes it easy to miss its absolute excellence. The apparent ease disguises the skill.

Remember Columbo’s catch-phrase? “Just one more thing…” The usual point of a catch-phrase is that not only the words remain the same but the manner of delivery. Think of all those catch-phrases from ‘Dad’s Army’. “Put that light out!” “They don’t like it up ‘em!” “Stupid boy!” Much of the joke is in the sameness: Captain Mainwaring’s irritation at Pike – “Stupid boy!” – is always the same thing. In ‘Columbo’, the line is always different. The rhythm, the inflection, the pace. Even the gesture of the hand. How many infinite variations can there be on one line of four words? This is virtuosic acting.

Columbo can’t develop in character terms any more than Poirot can. He boils down to some mannerisms ( the catchphrase, the bafflement, the unpretentious plain-man-in-a-rich-world ) and some props (the raincoat, the cigar, the falling apart car.) But, with Falk’s deftness, he never seems only these mannerisms and props. He seems alive and he’s hard to pin down. There’s some ambiguity as to how much we know about him. We understand that the bumbling man who infuriates the killer is not the razor-sharp real man, but we can’t be certain how much the bumbler is a front. Famously, he refers frequently to his wife, who never makes an appearance. We believe in her, but we can’t be quite sure that she exists.

Columbo’s world is a fantasy. The setting is LA, but not the real LA, not even the real moneyed LA, any more than Christie’s country houses and chocolate box villages are the real England, or Steed and Peel’s London the real London. Because it’s not real it doesn’t date. This may be why these shows, the earliest nearly fifty years old, seem so fresh. And the character himself, with his tatty raincoat and his bashed-up old car, is no more lodged in the seventies than in the forties, or the 2000s. In fact, Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators, said that one of their key inspirations was the playful, hectoring Porfiry Petrovich of the ‘Department of the Commissioner for Investigations’ from Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, and it is just as easy to imagine Columbo engaging in intellectual duels with Petersburgh princes as Californian millionaires. He is placeless and timeless. (And as a New Yorker in LA, he’s already something of an outsider.)

Falk is too good and true an actor to allow ‘Columbo’ to become a one-man show. The character needs an opponent to bring him alive, and much of the programme’s quiet intensity comes from the tension between the detective and the killer. The format is a clever variation on the Agatha Christie whodunit, which it overturns. The audience knows in the first scene who the killer is. The puzzle is not whodunit but how. Rather than the enjoyable ‘game’ of Agatha Christie, the result is real (albeit stylized) character drama, as the detective closes in on the killer. The nearer Columbo gets, the more arrogant, the more supercilious, the more contemptuous, his antagonist becomes. Because all the killers are extremely wealthy, there’s a satirical subtext, not laboured, on the American class system: the guy on a salary opposing a multi-millionaire. The murderer’s notes range from utter detestation to the pathetic and desperate, sometimes sad and oddly touching. (One of the killers is revealed to have old age dementia.) These two-hander scenes are full of subtlety and delicacy and suggestiveness, in both the writing and the playing. Throughout the seventies and again during the nineties revival, the ‘Columbo’ murderer was the best one-off acting job going in American TV. The actors plainly reveled in it.

It seems that all decent American TV is made in a state of unarmed combat between the programme makers and the suits: network execs, studio execs, accountants, advertisers. ‘Columbo’ was not only a rare artistic success, it was a commercial hit too, so you would suppose the best thing would have been to leave it alone. Nope. The suits could not stop interfering. Early on, they decided Columbo should have a young sidekick. The programme makers said no way. Peter Falk said no way. Upstairs insisted. The production team, reaching a compromise, said they would give him a dog.
“I don’t want a dog,” said Peter Falk.
“Wait ‘til you meet the dog.”
They found the ugliest dog in the word.
“Yes,” said Peter Falk when he saw him. “That’s Columbo’s dog.” In the series, he was called merely Dog. He made occasional scene-stealing appearances.

More damagingly, upstairs, noticing, as they do, the flood of advertising revenue, decided they could make even more money if they increased the running time from a ninety minute slot, about seventy minutes of material, to a two-hour slot, about ninety-five minutes of material. This is why some of the episodes from the second year onward feel a bit too long. They are. The extra running time was forced on the artistic staff. Not one of them wanted it.

But as faults go, this is a small one. The series maintained its integrity throughout its very long run and its star remained dedicated to it and serious about it and superb in it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series it needs no special pleading: I might recommend ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ with Donald Pleasance as a wine merchant both comic and tragic, but, really, pick out pretty much any episode, particularly from the seventies run.

There are plenty of entry points for people who want another reason to take a look. ‘Star Trek’ enthusiasts might start with the episode featuring Leonard Nimoy as a particularly loathsome killer, and William Shatner is excellent in a late episode as a tabloid talk-show radio host, of which there are many in America. Actually, I met Shatner – or at least was in a Green Room with him – (Shatner, Mike Tyson and me…!) at an event shortly after watching this and wanted to tell him how good I thought he was in it, but felt it would be embarrassing. Walter Koenig crops up in one as a cop.
Martin Landau crops up too, playing identical twin brothers. There’s even a science fiction episode, featuring Robbie the Robot, (not as the killer!), which works surprisingly well.

But maybe the best start for cult TV fans is the six episodes involving Patrick McGoohan. These offer a good sampling of both the seventies series and the nineties revival. Falk and McGoohan work together wonderfully well. McGoohan regarded ‘Columbo’ as his finest work after his move to the USA. He plays four very different murderers: from the original series, in ‘By Dawn’s early Light’ he’s a Colonel, an austere head of a military academy, full of convictions about ‘turning boys into men’, icy and yet strangely sympathetic; In ‘Identity Crisis’ which he also directs, and which has loads of sly references to ‘The Prisoner’, he’s a CIA operative, icy and by no means sympathetic, though he enjoys the cat-and-mouse game with Columbo, even when he loses; From the revival, in ‘Agenda for Murder’, he’s a lawyer floating around at the edge of politics; and in ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a marvel of scenery-chewing camp, he’s a horrid celebrity mortician who kills a horrid gossip columnist. McGoohan also directed two in which he does not appear: ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’, a rare instance of a change to the format, (the apparent murderer in the first scene may in fact not be,) and ‘Murder With Too Many Notes’, the penultimate episode, with Billy Connolly, of all people, great as the killer, and with a solution so obscure that you will have to watch the denouement at least twice to get it. McGoohan shared a writing credit for this.

‘Columbo’ has been repeated ad nauseum all over the world, but it was not – in the UK at least – made available on VHS, so it’s only since 2012, when the final stories came out on DVD, that the entire series has been obtainable. It’s possible, more than ever, to appreciate what a remarkable achievement it is. It’s always clever, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s sublimely played. It’s thrilling to see the countless permutations of the very tight format, always the same, endlessly different, like a blues improvisation. It’s unusually durable. The stories withstand multiple viewings. Doesn’t even matter if you remember whodunit! To my mind, until ‘The Sopranos’, American TV never did anything of such continuous excellence.

Episode Six



I first saw the new wave singer Lene Lovich on a children’s programme called “Magpie”. She sang her new single, “Lucky Number” in a strange voice sometimes spiky, sometimes ululating. I hadn’t heard pop so strikingly weird and to my ears so wondrous since “Wuthering Heights.”
“Oh my God,” I said to my sister, “Who is she?”

I wrote down something approximating the singer’s name, and bought the 45 the next weekend and, soon after, a picture disc of her first album, “Stateless.” This thrilling gem was released on Stiff Records, the hippest pop label of the time. I played it very, very loud that Saturday morning. “Stateless” was full of astounding pop songs, most written by Lene and her partner Les Chappell, performed in a vocal style I had never heard before, and neither had anyone else. A mixture, incredibly, of punk, bubble gum pop and ‘20s Euro-Cabaret, all stirred into a pungent blend. Though coloured with soul instrumentation – sax, organ – the album was as difficult to define as the title suggests. It was gothic pop before gothic pop existed. It had a ghostly quality, though muscular, not wispy at all: “Telepathy,” about a woman who knows when her boyfriend is cheating because his mind’s “like a TV” to her; “Sleeping Beauty,” about extreme plastic surgery, the complete reforming of a body; the dark, uncomfortable “Home,” about escaping it, which has become her theme song. There’s also a marvelous sex song, “Say When,” written by a man from the POV of a woman. “Hey, I call the shots. Baby, I say when!” This was a hit single.

“Stateless” was followed by “Flex.” Posters advertising “Flex” – images of Lene in a wedding dress – were all over the London underground when I began working for the BBC. “Flex” wasn’t “Stateless II”. It was eerier, more personal, a tilted, original vision, with subjects like reincarnation, angels, (a song which manages to be about both hairy bikers and the cherubim!) and suspended animation. Yet there’s still room for “Wonderful One,” a bouncy love song of great emotional clarity. I love the way her words embrace the dreamlike and impossible without seeming merely escapist, like all good fantasy they’re rooted in something.

The dying moment of “Flex” is “The Freeze,” one of the best science fiction songs you’ll ever hear. It was not her first such venture. Before she found a recording contract, she was asked by the French dance producer Cerrone to write lyrics for him, and she turned out a song called “Supernature,” which was a big hit. Lene can claim with these lyrics about a lost paradise, a theme to which she returns, to have invented the small, strange genre of science fiction disco…
A third of a century after it was made, “Flex” is still a unique artifact.

The third album, “No Man’s Land,” appeared after a wait of three years and, again, it feels less like a follow-up than an entirely separate work. This is 1982 and the sound is brighter, poppier, synthier, more polished, I suppose more commercial, though the songs are as vivid and unique as ever. They’ve taken on a widescreen, cinematic quality. (“Savages,” “Rocky Road.”) There is a startling, unforgettable song called “Blue Hotel” which seems to be about telepathic communication in the sky.

Les Chappell plays many of the instruments and co-writes the songs, and most tracks include his vocal contributions. These are rarely backing vocals in the orthodox sense. He interjects whoops, swoops, hollers, roars, banshee moans. Sometimes he sounds like a phantom on a football terrace. These effects are an integral part of the texture of the records.
I have been listening to these three albums again recently, because they’ve has just been reissued, in luminous new remasters overseen by the artist herself on her new micro-label Flex Music.
But the Stiff Records trilogy is not at all the whole story. When she was widely written about in the late seventies, articles made mention of a mysterious three-track Christmas single which had been released before her contract with Stiff. The articles and, in interviews, Lene herself, talked of this as something of a skeleton. I had the happy fortune of discovering a copy in the mid-eighties in one of those fabulous, dusty Camden Town record shops. (An actor friend lived in the flat over the shop, though I did not know him then.) The ‘A’ side is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and on the sleeve Lene is peering through a snow-frosted window, looking like a cross between a shocked French maid and my friend Bonnie Langford. The record is great fun, and I like the summery sound of the kettle drums, which must be unique in the history of Xmas musical oddities.

A fourth album, “March”, quietly crept into shops at the end of the eighties. Noticed only by her dedicated following, it’s on a smaller, more intimate scale than “No Man’s Land’” with some inspired songs, one about the condition of sleep and dream, “Night shift,”; one sung from the point of view of a shadow, and one, “Natural Beauty,” which is both a ‘lost paradise’ song and a simple declaration of love. (“Natural beauty still survives,/ I can see it in your eyes.”)

There was an endless, post-“Red Shoes”-length wait, (longer, in fact,) for the fifth, “Shadows and Dust,” which appeared out of the blue on a New York label in 2004, the voice and sensibility intact, the stylistic range wider: there’s the deliciously pantomimic “Wicked Witch” and a setting of Heathcote Williams’ humorous poem “The Insect Eater” in which Lene plays both Renfield and Dracula, alongside the beautiful and uneasy love story down generations “Remember,” the haunting “Shapeshifter,” the desperate “Little Rivers,” the poppy “Gothica.”
Throughout her career, she’s worn home-made stage costumes, which, in sync her performance persona, are exotic but not exactly locatable in time and place, though often loosely historical. The mysterious East? Camelot? A strange lost Europe? All of these. Some of her songs are science fiction, but, whereas the visuals of, say, Bowie or Annie Lennox lean towards the future, Lene leans towards a fractured, imagined past. Sometimes she wears head dresses. In one of my favourite photos, used for the sleeve of a 45, she’s in a sort of leather waistcoat and a black jacket fringed with lace. A deep red ribbon is wrapped around each of her wrists, her hands in black lace gloves. She holds a fan, which is open, resting on her lower lip concealing her chin. Her hair, usually in long plaits, is here piled frizzily, dropped into it more ribbons, looking like wet red roses. Her eyes are wide, her pallor ghostly. Somewhere between a film gypsy and the ghost of a Victorian lady? Very cool.

She has frequently been brought into the studio by other artists. Tom Verlaine of the group Television, The Residents and the Italian singer Giuni Russo all made good use of her. She turned up a few years ago as a randy android on a Hawkwind album, of which she was the highlight. Most interesting, maybe, are her appearances in two long dramatic musical pieces. She was a fragile and finally broken Madeleine Usher on Peter Hammill and Judge Smith’s airless, intense ‘opera’ “Fall of the House of Usher.” This record was a major discovery for me, being an introduction to Hammill’s vast and unique output. It exists in two variations. The first release, in 1991, used a standard rock group format, guitar, drums, keyboards. A few years later, Hammill returned to the tapes, stripped away almost all the rock accompaniment, redid his own vocals to much more powerful effect, and laid the remaining vocals (a superb cast: Lene, Andy Bell of Erasure, Herbert Grönemeyer, the spine-tingling Sarah Jane Morris,) on top of a spectral cushion of guitar sound. Either is worth hearing, but the revision is chilling. “Usher” was originally conceived for theatre and I sometimes wonder how it would work on stage.

Then there is Judge Smith’s recent “Orfeas,” (sic), one of a series of ‘song stories’ as he calls them, designed as sound-only musical narrative pieces. (Think Big Finish, sung.) Whereas “Usher” is doom-laden, “Orfeas” is wonderfully knockabout, Lene’s Eurydice supercilious, contemptuous, comic. Incidentally, she also made the mask of Orfeas which illustrates the booklet.

But now that “Shadows and Dust” is on the cusp of its tenth anniversary, I hope there will soon be a new album under her own name. She’s returned to touring, with a tight new band who plainly adore her. Her audiences are pleasingly mixed, from paunchy old blokes in “Never Mind the Bollocks” t-shirts to Goth girls to young gay guys who own all her records. (I’ve only recently realized that she’s a hidden gay icon, though it’s obvious that she should be.) She’s turned up in some extraordinary venues, including an excellent one underneath Brighton station which in a previous incarnation was a shed for railway vehicles.

I love what she does.
Oh, and she has produced the sweetest piece of pop music merchandise ever, key rings made from her stage costumes. Can you bear to be without one?

Episode Five



I found myself in the Anchor bar last Sunday afternoon. The Anchor is famous for its juke box, which annually wins the poll for ‘best juke box in New Haven.’ But the juke box was not playing, though its yellow lights flashed. Instead, someone behind the bar had put on the CD which contains ‘Ella and Louis’ and its follow-up ‘Ella and Louis Again’. I’d meant to stay for just one drink but I love that record so I sat in a booth and listened to the whole CD. I’ve known ‘Ella and Louis’ for decades, but I have never heard it played in its entirety in a fairly large, public space before. It would be wrong to imply it was like hearing it for the first time, but I was certainly hearing it differently. It was like hearing a remastering which brings new details forward, the vaudevillian absurdity of ‘Let’s do it’, the deep melancholy of ‘Willow weep for me’, the wistful yearning of ‘Autumn in New York’.

The Anchor is a dive bar from the old, weird America which exists now only in traces. You will not find ‘craft beer’ here, or a wine list. The walls are a very deep red. The seats in the semi-circular booths are brown plastic and not awfully comfortable. Mirrors above the booths reflect the darkness. It is always dark here. It smells of cigars, because it is right next to a cigar bar, the only bar in the city where it is legal to smoke, and the smoke curls pleasingly round to the Anchor. On cold days an old space heater is placed in the middle of the room, which emits a worrying smell. On a Friday night The Anchor is packed, with older couples out for a bite of diner-type grub, and office people relieved at the coming of the weekend and students who enjoy its retro-non-hipness which is a kind of hip. Also, working class men alone, sitting on stools at the bar, reading the New York Post. The tiny bar is in the far corner: three people and it’s taken up. This Sunday afternoon there are five people in the Anchor plus me. Two of the five are staff. They have all fallen silent: they are listening to the music. It is music that makes you listen. Louis Armstrong always has that effect.

Ella and Louis’ is a series of duets between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. It removes Armstrong from the context of his band. The accompaniment is instead by the pianist Oscar Peterson, the drummer Louis Bellson and the bassist Ray Brown, a classic mid-fifties mainstream jazz line-up. The cushion of Oscar’s piano is not a sound I associate with the Anchor, where normally seventies pop is playing on the jukebox and a smattering of early rock ‘n’ roll, but it lights up the room. Ella sings with sublime creaminess.

But Armstrong is something else entirely.

It must have been astonishing to hear these recordings the day they came out. The song choice is high end pop songs of the day, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, the kind of ‘sophisticated’ lyrics Armstrong had rarely recorded before. Lyrically and emotionally very different from ‘Tight like that’ and ‘Big fat ma and skinny pa’, two of his twenties masterpieces.

As a rule of thumb, it’s ‘the voice as an instrument’ (to use a cliché) that distinguishes great jazz singers from commercial vocalists, Billie’s voice or Betty Carter’s or Anita O’Day’s working like saxophones, the singers thinking like players. (Anita O’Day dressed like the musicians in the band, to say, hey, I’m a musician.) Everybody knows about the sublime musical love affair between Billie and Lester Young: Lester’s sax his voice, Billie using her voice as an instrument. This doesn’t explain Armstrong, whose voice is an extension of his instrument. There’s a beautiful fifties blues where he plays a trumpet obbligato to accompany his own vocal, the horn and the voice speaking to each other, responding to each other. He claimed to have invented scat singing – the wordless vocal – and he is certainly the first person to scat on a record. And yet he gets to the depths of words. The poet Philip Larkin put it well: Armstrong “tears lyrics up by the roots.” He was as deeply musical as it is possible to be, but he was also a profoundly word-driven man. If you’ve seen footage of him talking you’ll know what a wonderful interview subject he was. He was also a writer, though, born into abject poverty in red light New Orleans, he was lucky to escape illiteracy. He travelled with a typewriter, and wrote in the tour bus, in hotel rooms, in his dressing room. Reams of stuff, much of it published a few years ago. Letters, reminiscences, essays. So when he sings, the stretching of a vowel here, the emphasis of a consonant there (‘Louissss…’ ‘The Britishshsh Museum….’ ) may have a musical beauty, but it serves the lyrics too. I noticed listening in the Anchor how absolutely limpid his line readings are, the kind of clarity Gielgud brought to classical texts. Before the ‘Ella and Louis’ sessions it might (I suppose) have been imagined that the frosty, elegant wit of Cole Porter was not in his range, but it has never been done better.

Halfway through ‘Let’s Do it’ a new customer came in and went to the bar and ordered a drink which he took to a booth. He too was listening.

When the album finished I drained my glass and went out into the daylight, which was bright and sunny. I was exhilarated. I reflected on how much I love Armstrong and what a giant artist he is. But as always with great art, there is ambiguity. In the middle of my exhilaration, I remembered what Billie Holiday as a girl had said when she first heard him: “How can a music that is so happy seem so sad?”

Episode Four



I first visited New York City in the mid-eighties, but it has lived in my imagination much longer, as long as I can remember. A person’s first impressions of a place, however fantastical and inaccurate, never quite go away, and the New York I love to this day is a blend of the real and the imagined. My novels have all been set in a version of the city made up partly of the factual concrete place – there are chapters you can use as guidebooks! – and partly of the assorted variations which formed in my head at six years old, ten, fifteen, from art and entertainment: music, films, telly, comics.

New York was a distant, exhilarating place where life was edgy and exciting and exotic. Everything about New York was extreme. The buildings were extremely tall. The restaurants, where in corners pianists played ebony grand pianos, were extremely plush. The subways were extremely dark. The subway trains were extremely clattery. The cabs were extremely yellow. The cab drivers took extreme risks to get you places fast. Black people were extremely cool. Private Eyes were extremely laconic. The police were extremely trigger-happy.

New York was believed to be the most violent, shadowy, dangerous place on earth. (For a while, this was statistically true.) It was full of glittery rich people and angry poor people. All the glittery rich people were white and all the angry poor people were black. Being poor and angry, as packaged by pop culture, was hip, full of gritty energy. Truth was, it was hipper than being rich, though less comfortable. Neither Hispanic people beyond West Side Story nor, beyond the miniaturized ‘mysterious east’ of Chinatown, Asian people, were heard about much.

When Quentin Crisp, an Englishman in New York, said he adored America what he really meant was that he adored New York. In fact, that he adored Greenwich Village. When as a boy I thought of New York I thought of Manhattan. I had only the vaguest sense that there were other boroughs. Manhattan was America. All US TV programmes that were any good seemed to be set in New York, even if they weren’t. All comic books were set in New York. The blue skies of Manhattan were streaked by the multi-coloured costumes of countless superheroes. I remember wondering why, with all these superheroes around, the super-villains didn’t move to Chicago or LA, where they could rule the roost unchallenged. (Chicago, it must be said, had gangsters.) My favourite comic, The Fantastic Four, in its Jack Kirby golden age, was pretty cosmic, but New York was the centre of its universe. When the Silver Surfer or Galactus came to Earth it was always to New York. Doctor Doom was the ruler of a minor Eastern European nation called Latveria, inhabited exclusively by peasants, but he spent all his time flying to New York.

New York was drowning in music. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the sixties was thrilling in its way but the music that really mattered was jazz: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington. The Apollo theatre. Louis Armstrong at Town Hall. Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk playing bop at the Royal Roost. Nearly every jazz musician recorded a live album at the Village Vanguard. “Live at the Village Vanguard” remains an evocative phrase. Strangely, Broadway music, unless reworked into jazz, didn’t do much for me, being too direct, lacking mystery. The city’s legendary small club cabaret scene appealed to me more in the abstract than in practice, maybe because, for me, cabaret benefited from a European accent. But pop singers and groups based in the city – Lou Reed, Blondie – were evocative of it, as if the place itself was stewed into the sound of the records. Pop songs which mentioned New York had an extra piquancy: most famously Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, though the song that gave me butterflies was called Native New Yorker by a group called Odyssey, about which I knew nothing else. It made me wish I was a native New Yorker. I still love it when I hear it. It makes me think of seventies Harlem, black people with afros, rather like the pictures on Miles Davis album sleeves of the time.

A lot of Europeans got their most vivid impressions of New York from the films of Woody Allen, who was to us a great film-maker, and most important, a great New York film-maker. We understood that he had lived in New York all his life and was in a way the ultimate New Yorker. He even sometimes wrote for the New Yorker magazine. His chunk of the city, populated by artistic white people at the upper end of middle class (or at least free of money worries,) who read literary novels, attended art gallery opening nights, queued at art-house cinemas, went to chi-chi parties where there was airy chat about these subjects, was a long way from Harlem, but the soundtracks were smeared with jazz.

New York after midnight made for a different cinematic and literary experience. With its tall buildings which cast shadows broken only by pools of light from street lamps, its cramped rooming houses, its brownstones, and perhaps because it rained a lot, three a.m.

New York was the ultimate noir city. I loved the books of Cornell Woolrich who was credited with inventing the genre. He spent most of his life living in New York hotels, first with his mother and after her death alone, becoming more isolated and strange as time passed, and describing, or inventing, a paranoid underbelly of existentialist terror. Woolrich’s books were so intense they made you sweat. In a breath-taking novel called Deadline at Dawn, a couple are hunted through the “night-scarred city”. The chapter headings are clockfaces so the reader can viscerally feel how far away the safety of dawn is.

The most intense New York noir vision was to be found in the Harlem novels of Chester Himes, who was one of the greatest of all American writers. In the forties and fifties he wrote a number of serious, damning, complex novels about American racism. Like most black American writers of the time he lived for many years in France, where, desperate for money, he took up a publisher’s invitation to try his hand at detective fiction. The result, A Rage in Harlem, was the first of what became nine increasingly surreal crime novels, brief and sharp as gunshot, featuring two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Funny and violent and tragic; hot and dark and full of hurt. (The first volume of Himes’ autobiography was called The Quality of Hurt.) Himes had lived in Harlem and knew it well but these novels were much more than a report. They presented a kaleidoscopic, cinematic vision of the district: like the London of Dickens and the London of Hogarth, they were absolutely truthful and yet more unforgettably vivid, wilder, than life. Written in the late fifties and sixties, they were nominally set in the present, but ‘the present’ was a flexible concept. When a character put on a record, it was likely to be Bessie Smith. And yet, as has been observed, some of the imagery and feel of rap and hip-hop can be found in these books. That’s how far ahead of his time Himes was. He didn’t so much transcend the genre as blow it apart. He was a genius.

There were photographs too, of course, preferably black and white. New York has always been incredibly photogenic. Shots of the lights of Broadway, bright but blurry, Times Square, shots of the famous sky-line, shots of the village. Exteriors of music venues, the Vanguard, the Gaslight, the Bitter End. The faces of beat poets. The faces of ex-pats: Auden, Crisp. Shots of people on boiling hot summer days, sitting on fire escapes and in open windows, shirtless, cigarettes in mouths, the radio (one imagined) playing in the background.

Strangely, though the summers were notoriously hot, the city’s other weather extreme was rarely touched on: it never snowed in any of these assorted New Yorks. It was a shock to find when I began living nearby that there was snow on the ground three months of the year.
All these variations connected to each other only at the edges, like Venn diagrams, but the resulting impressions amounted to both a series of fractures and an oddly convincing whole, only parts of which can be visited bodily but which add up to the ultimate mythic American city.

Episode Three



 I mentioned in my memoir about Doctor Who, Blue Box Boy, that I had a sneaking affection for the old American day time soap Dark Shadows, which ran for five years at the end of the sixties. I had never seen it, though I had heard of it, until I found myself living in America, where it was being recycled at an ungodly hour. It’s easy to take the piss out of, with its wobbling sets and its glacially slow pace and the struggles of its actors to remember lines, but once you appreciate the circumstances under which Dark Shadows was made – the programmes were recorded as live, five days a week – you begin to recognize that the cast were doing rather wonderful work.

Many of the central characters – Barnabas Collins, Quentin Collins, Julia Hoffman, Willie Loomis, even the witch Angelique in her evil way – have an authentic note of the tragic. The series began as a rip-off of Jane Eyre, and there is something mini-Bronteish to these damaged people, living day to day, year to year, even century to century, with a kind of dignity. What I admire about the series is its weirdly unflinching sense that nothing can ever be put right.  There are moments of calm, the consolation of occasional sex, but these are impermanent. The characters are cripples who have to find a way to live with their condition.

                (There are some subtextual elements which I strongly dislike. Women in their late teens and early twenties always fall head over heels in love with men in their forties, and – much more troubling – women who express the slightest interest in non-marital sex, prostitutes and non-prostitutes alike, unfailingly die violently before the end of the episode.)

                The producer of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis, cashed in at the height of the soap’s popularity by making two films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Both these films were horribly re-edited by the film company, so the versions we have are mutilated.  The last half hour of the second makes no sense whatever.

Plot elements of the soap opera are reused, but to completely different effect. The films occupy an alternative universe a great deal bloodier and more brutal.  In House of Dark Shadows, the TV cast play their TV characters, and Curtis proceeds to kill nearly all of them off in a swift ninety minutes. The ten-year old boy David, in a scene cut by the film company but to be seen in a trailer, hangs himself. There are operatic amounts of blood of an extreme, stylised redness, offset by blues and foggy whites. Jonathan Frid, freed from the schedule of daytime TV, is majestic.

It’s hard to escape the sense that the many shots of peculiar beauty came about because Dan Curtis didn’t quite know what he was doing, but that doesn’t make them less beautiful. House of Dark Shadows feels like a commentary on all the tropes of the gothic horror film. If it had been done in French, everyone would now recognize it as a high-camp art-house masterpiece!

Anyhow, James Goss at Big Finish productions, who have a line of Dark Shadows audios, read Blue Box Boy and dropped me a line:


Dear Matthew,

Would you like to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer in an episode of Dark Shadows?


 I had always wanted to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer. I don’t think

there’s any Equity member who hasn’t .

I had no doubt that doing ‘Dark Shadows: The Creeping Fog’ would be great fun, which it was, but I didn’t expect to be playing such an interesting character – one of the most interesting I have ever played – and I didn’t expect a script of such a high quality. It’s essentially a two hander between David Selby and I, augmented by some spooky voices. The core of the piece was recorded in one day in LA.

‘The Creeping Fog,’ written by Simon Guerrier, is one of a number of episodes which take place during World War II. The immortal Quentin Collins finds himself in a pub in fogbound London in 1941, where, seemingly accidentally, he bumps into a vague, scholarly and bumbling middle-aged chap called John Cunningham who runs a dusty, down-at-heel museum over the road.  They find themselves overnight in the museum, where the bumbling mask which John presents to Quentin keeps falling away, to reveal, at first, the glint of the true obsessive, then something very dark. To put it simply, he’s completely crazy. I’m not giving anything away; the attentive listener can deduce this by John’s second line, the distracted listener by his third.

‘The  Creeping Fog’ is a mad and dark and sublime piece of gothic fiction.

While in the studio in LA, I also did a couple of cameo characters for a story called ‘The Crimson Pearl’ by James Goss and Joseph Lidster. I didn’t see the full script for this, only my own lines, so I didn’t have any real sense of what ‘The Crimson Pearl’ amounted to until I heard it recently. It turned out to be an adorably lavish 45th anniversary special with a vast cast – just about every surviving Dark Shadows actor, and cameos from Doctor Who people Nicola Bryant, Louise Jameson and I.  James and Joseph had the brilliant idea of doing this story in a series of bite-sized five minute episodes, a sort of miniaturized, Faberge egg version of the soap opera itself, as the mysterious pearl (“as if Lucifer plucked out one of his own eyes…”) is passed from hand to hand down generations and centuries.  If the episodes are miniature, the story isn’t – it crosses two centuries in an hour. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink anniversary specials, ranging through the entire history of a series, are enormous fun, and ‘The Crimson Pearl’ is as good an example as I’ve come across. The effect is of a sort of audio 3-D!

When the TV series finished, it left a library, so to speak, of reconstructed, slightly warped variations on every gothic character archetype – the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, the witch, servants of satan, every damned thing you can think of. They have endless possibilities.


Episode Two


I was sad to come across the obituary of the brilliant poet Sebastian Barker today. I’ve been reading his books for years. Here’s a poem from his collection ‘The Erotics of God’:

The Reflection

The crazy sky is slit with light,
the dream emerges from
The vast receptacle of light
where no attendants came.

Slit from ear to ear the brain
sees itself in this,
The crazy colours of the sun
exploding the abyss.

Episode One



  I was delighted to be asked during 2013 to make a couple of appearances at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank as part of the British Film Institute’s year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

  For the Fifth Doctor event, Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, the director Graham Harper and I shared a terrifically enjoyable panel (I thought so anyway) after a showing of that astounding serial The Caves of Androzani. The Robots of Death was the chosen story for the Fourth Doctor, and though I loved seeing this again, there was no point in me being on the panel because I had nothing to do with it! The organizer Justin Johnson asked me instead to give a little introductory talk. I’ve recently found the notes I made for this, so, for those who were not at the NFT and are interested, here is what I said:


  Thanks so much to Justin Johnson for inviting me to introduce this diamond of a Dr Who story –I didn’t know I would be in London this weekend so it was very last minute and I’m delighted to be here.

  Well, 50 years of this extraordinary series, this strange, wildly inventive, colourful, funny, scary, sublime series! I have been associated with it for well over half my life, and because I found myself on a set for the first time with my hero Doctor Who when I was only only 18, all my adult life. I will always be the boy from Dr Who, even when I’m 80 – the oldest Dr Who boy in Equity.

  I’d grown up watching it too, knew it well, long, long before I received a script.

  One way or another, it has been lodged in my imagination all my life. The first actor I knew by name was Patrick Troughton. I can’t remember I time when I didn’t know the TARDIS set, imagine myself on it. It’s the same for you, I’m sure.

  Then, in 1974, out of the blue he appeared, Tom Baker, strangely alien and completely unexpected and unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We’d never heard of him and neither had our parents. Our parents had at least vaguely heard of the earlier Doctors – “Oh yes, Jon Pertwee, he does funny voices on the wireless” – but Tom, to we who loved him it was as if he existed only to be the Doctor – one day he wasn’t there and the next he was incredibly there, and for those of us who loved his Doctor, (he and his Doctor, they were one to us.) went to the heart of our imaginations.

  We were fascinated by him and we wanted to be him, We wanted to stalk about the place saying things like, “would you like a jelly baby?” and “what’s the point of being grown-up if you can’t be childish some of the time.” We played with our yo-yo in the school lunch break. I had an official Doctor Who yo-yo with a picture of the Daleks on the side, which got rubbed away with long use. We had posters of Tom and Louise on our bedroom walls. We were in love with Leela – Even if we were gay we were in love with Leela. We wanted to be regarded as eccentric and a little mysterious by our friends. Though our intellectual capacities were limited, we identified ourselves with the cleverest man in the universe, which suggests a hint of ego-mania, or at least a lack of self-knowledge. Of course we wanted to wear a hat and a very, very long scarf. I have tried to think of another really famous fictional scarf and I can’t recall one – The Fourth Doctor’s scarf is simply the most famous imaginary scarf in this universe. When I was making Dr Who, I found that if I wore a scarf, and I don’t mean a long multi-coloured scarf, I mean an ordinary studenty purple scarf, on the reasonable grounds that it was the middle of winter and freezing, the chances of a child stopping me and asking for a signature increased discernibly. If someone saw my face and wondered if that was the boy from Dr Who, the scarf seemed to confirm it for them.

  We’re going to watch one of the Fourth Doctor’s most unforgettable adventures now. The Robots of Death, with its air of mystery and murder and threat and those robots with their utterly impassive sarcophagus-like faces was a story so vivid no Dr Who enthusiast ever forgot it. This was a story we all talked about at school, every Monday morning after each episode, puzzling over the mystery as it thickened. I suppose there are very few people in this room who have not seen these episodes, – if there are any, they’re in for a treat – but the rest of us have never seen them on a ginormous screen at the National Film Theatre. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s going to be fun! Doctor Who – the Robots of Death.


  The vibe at these BFI events so cool that, when I was back in the UK a couple of months later, I took up the invitation to see the Seventh Doctor’s really splendid story, Remembrance of the Daleks, and later a special showing of Mark Gatiss’s brilliant and sad play about William Hartnell, Adventures in Time and Space. The culmination of the anniversary itself took place at the NFT too: that’s where twenty Doctor Who actors watched the 50th anniversary episode, ten minutes ahead of the rest of planet earth! That’s where the ‘after-show party’ was broadcast from.

  It’s fair to say that the 50th anniversary would have been a lot less fun without the support and interest of the BFI.