Blue Box Blog

Episode Four

tardis-round


 

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

tardis-round


 

 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

tardis-round 
 


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

  tardis-round          

 

  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.