Thursday, 28 November 2013

York - So Good They Named It Once

On Monday I went to York as a guest of the University of York's QI Society. They were having their pre-Christmas beano and, as part of the larks and shenanigans, they like to put on a quiz. This year, they asked if I would host it, maybe write a few QI-type questions and also do a Q and A about what it's like to be a QI elf and, indeed, how you get to be one.

I explained that the easiest and most popular route is via the talk forums (fora?) on the QI website. It's a place where you can prove your mettle as a fact finder and fact quibbler amongst hundreds of other would-be elves. Do it often and well enough and you soon rise to the cream of the crop, at which point QI might just say, 'How do you fancy wearing an elf hat?'

It was a fun evening although I have to confess that it was not great for my self-esteem being among so many bright young men and women. And when I realised that they were only 10 years older than my granddaughter but 33 years younger than me, I could feel the grave walls closing in.

Thankfully, I was reinvigorated by a walk around the city on Tuesday morning. It's one of the loveliest cities in England I reckon and it was nice to be back; last time I was here was in 2010.

I was about 2 miles outside the city walls and decided to walk as it was a deliciously brisk morning but bright with the prospect of some Winter sunshine. My walk took me down the Hull Road and past St Lawrence's with its ancient tower and gravestones so old the inscriptions have been eroded by wind and rain. It's weird to think that no one living remembers the people interred here and, even if they did, there's no indication of whose grave is who's.

I soon approached the city walls. If you've never been to York, you may not be aware of just how well the ancient city walls have been preserved. You can pretty much walk around the perimeter of the old city, passing by its several gates as you do so. I was entering by Walmgate, built during the reign (1272 to 1307) of Edward I 'Longshanks'. It's been much built upon ever since and was completely renovated in the 1950s.

I then walked down through Walmgate, passing by beautiful buildings like the 14th century timber-framed Bowes-Murrell House and over the River Foss and past the glorious Merchant Adventurer's Hall (same era), stopping only for a cracking breakfast at the Sitting Pig. So appropriately named. :)

I didn't have much time before my train was due to leave so I bimbled around a few antiquarian bookshops and then set off for the train station, passing by the faded glory of the old White Swan Hotel, the red brick pomp of Barclays Bank on Parliament Street, the sagging Jones and Co and Golden Fleece in Pavement, and then through Higher and Lower Ousegate and over the River Ouse itself.

I then passed out of the old city through Micklegate and arrived at the station and set off home.

My journey was made all the more bearable between York and Grantham by chatting to a lovely octogenarian with the memory of a goldfish who repeatedly told me the same stories for an hour. But she was lovely and the miles flew by.

However, the second half of the journey was spent with a bald Yorkshire businessman in 1980s red braces who went on the attack against 'Southerners' pretty much with his first words to me. I mean, it's good to be proud of your roots but he was just annoying and rude. He spoke with the same patronising and slightly fearful tone you hear from racists and homophobes. I know he isn't representative of the North, which is generally much friendlier and open than the South and I won't have my views overturned by one loud bigoted twat. And anyway, he wasn't quite so talkative after I pointed out that, to the Scots and Geordies he's a 'Southerner'. And when, as many scientists predict, the Earth's poles switch, I'll be the Northerner.

Take that baldy.

A shame I didn't get more time in York. It's a city I know quite well from other visits but I'd like to know it better.

Beautiful uselessness - The surreal photographs of Giuseppe Colarusso

Guiseppe Colarusso likes to take photos of objects that, frankly, are either pointless, useless or highly improbable. Things like these:

Or these ...

Or even these ...

Clever isn't it? I like the fact that you sometimes have to look twice to spot what's wrong. And when you do, the oh-so familiar suddenly becomes something very strange.

There are lots more examples of his work on his website here and especially in his Improbabilita gallery here.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

50 Years of Joy

I cannot let the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who slip by without nailing some personal thoughts about my relationship with the show to my blog. It's been a close relationship in some ways. It's certainly been an influential one.

I'm two years older than the show but I was too young to appreciate its impact upon kids until I was about six or seven. By then William Hartnell had hung up his wig and retired, bloody but unbowed, so my first memories are glimpses of terrifying giant crab claws and of choking foamy suds (the Macra Terror and Fury From The Deep respectively) overwhelming Pat Troughton's cosmic hobo.

I quite clearly remember Troughton's final series. 1969 was an extraordinary year for this young impressionable Cornishman; not only did I watch Apollo 11 touch down on the surface of the Moon ... I also saw Troughton regenerate into Jon Pertwee at the end of episode 10 of The War Games. Or, rather, I didn't. I saw him gurning and shouting 'No! No! No!' a lot while spinning around in something not unlike the video for Bohemian Rhapsody ... and that was it! We were left hanging as to what would happen next. And what did happen next was ... colour!

Now, I had seen some Doctor Who in colour already. Like many kids my age, I'd been to see the two Peter Cushing films - Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 (1966) - and had marvelled at seeing everyone's favourite xenophobic pepperpots in glorious technicolour. If I'm honest, we didn't care that Cushing wasn't Troughton; fandom back then wasn't quite so rabid and exhaustingly nit-picking as it is today. Yes, it was an obvious attempt to cash-in on the popularity of the Daleks. Yes, they were clumsy re-hashes of two Hartnell stories with Terry Nation's scripts hacked to pieces. And yes, they were camp and pretty terrible. But don't be so sniffy! Remember, what we were seeing were production values that far outstripped the TV show. Oddly enough, we under-10s didn't care about who the Doctor was. We went 'Oooh!' and 'Aahh! at the big screen Bakelite flying saucers, we laughed at Bernard Cribbens trying to be a Roboman and we drank in the glorious colours. The films had a big impact on us kids and I genuinely find it a bit sad that Cushing's Doctor seems to have been completely written out of the celebrations. If he did one good thing, it was to make us all go home and pester our parents to start renting (nobody bought a TV back then) a colour TV so that we could see the new Doctor in colour, like at the cinema. We pestered and we pestered. And, in my case, me and my brothers won. Jon Pertwee arrived on our spanking new colour TV screen in 1970 with Spearhead from Space and we were agog. We were also a little puzzled that he had a tattoo. Did Time Lords have tattoos? I guess it did look a bit like a question mark; a motif that was later repeated in shirt collars, tank tops and umbrella handles. Or is it a snake? Eek! The mark of the Mara!!!

Incidentally, another Doctor who has been written out of the history of the show is Trevor Martin. He had appeared in the TV show - he played the character of 'Second Time Lord' in that scene in The War Games when Troughton is sentenced to regeneration. But he also played the Doctor in Doctor Who and the Seven Keys to Doomsday at the Adelphi Theatre in London, a 1974 stage play that, like the films, was non-canonical ... but we didn't care! It was Doctor Who! On stage! The show was written by long-time Who writer Terrance Dicks and parts of it - such as the planet Karn - later turned up in the Tom Baker era story The Brain of Morbius ... which also introduced us to the Sisterhood of Karn, who recently appeared in Paul McGann's Night of the Doctor. So there's a link from the stage play right through to the present, which is nice to see. The stage show script has since been recorded as an audio drama with Trevor Martin reprising his role.

Pertwee cemented my love of Doctor Who forever. He was funny, heroic, gallant, smart ... the perfect role model. His era also coincided with my descent into puberty and his assistants, Liz Shaw, Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith, did much to get the hormones sloshing. I was now hooked on the show. I bought the annuals and the Target novelisations. I bought some Daleks at Butlin's with ballbearings underneath that you could flick at each other like Subbuteo players. I entered Doctor Who competitions - I cannot begin to tell you how envious I was of my best mate Huw Williams when he won a Blue Peter 'design a monster' competition and got taken to London to meet Tom Baker. Grrr. I don't mind admitting that it became a mild obsession.

The Three Doctors (1973) was a proper national TV event. Everyone I knew made sure they were in to watch it (much as people will tonight for the 50th). And it was wonderful; particularly to see Troughton and Hartnell in colour for the first time. The Radio Times published a special 10th anniversary magazine, in the back of which were comprehensive plans to build a life sized Dalek. Our technology teachers at school didn't need much persuading to have a crack at it; it made a pleasant change from building go-karts with lawnmower engines. Schools up and down the country built their own Daleks ... I wonder what happened to them all?

But soon, Pertwee's reign was over and the inimitable Tom Baker arrived and placed his indelible stamp on the character. And my mum knitted me a long multi-coloured scarf believing that I'd love it (I did) and that it would make me look cool (it didn't). It was too embarrassing to wear around town or to school but I did wear it 'ironically' in my later teens.

Like many teenagers, I was starting to experiment with writing. And I wrote Doctor Who stories, typically involving plots and monsters that were Hollywood epically huge; things that would never appear on the TV show like exploding suns and planet-sized creatures. I wrote more and more and they got better and better. Of course, it was just for my own amusement but there was always the thought that maybe ... just maybe ... I'd one day be able to write for the show.

My teens came to an end and in 1980 I headed off to London to become a police officer. And the Doctor changed once again. The gloriously eccentric and wickedly betoothed Tom Baker morphed into the youthful, clean-cut Peter Davison in 1982 and I found myself suddenly in an unprecedented position; it turned out that one of my neighbours worked in the VT editing suite at the BBC. Initially all this meant was that I got to see the infamous BBC Christmas 'white tapes' containing rude, sweary and hilarious outtakes (this was before It'll be Alright on the Night and such shows). But when I saw two Tom Baker outtakes, I couldn't help asking whether he had any link to Doctor Who. He did. He was one of the editors. And, what's more, he set me up with a studio visit. Which is how, a short time later, I found myself at the BBC on the prehistoric set for the filming of the story Time Flight and chatting to the then producer John Nathan-Turner.

Of course, being ever the opportunist I asked about writing for the show. Back then there was a more open door policy and, having shared some of my ideas, John asked me to send him a couple of my stories. In recent years he's been portrayed as something of a predatory figure but I experienced none of that. He was a lovely guy; okay, so he was as camp as a cake stand and had a taste in Hawaiian shirts that bordered on the insane, but he liked my ideas and, over several meetings, we talked about how I could hone them down into usable scripts - I'm afraid my imagination and vision far outstripped what the BBC visual effects department could manage back then. Anyway, I watched several more episodes being filmed at BBC television centre and witnessed the changeover from Davison to Colin Baker. I then had to do a rewrite of my scripts to accommodate the change to Baker's Doctor and saw parts of The Twin Dilemma being filmed with those bloody awful Tractators. But, for one reason or another, my show never quite got made. I got close - at one point one of mine was in a toss up with two others - but just got pipped at the post. By better writers; I have no illusions about that! That said, it's a great shame I fell short of the goal as I will never get that chance again now that the show is so huge. One current Doctor Who writer, Paul Cornell, suggested to me that I write my scripts up as novelisations. I might well do that one day when I get time.

Colin Baker was unpopular from the outset - a great shame as he's a genuinely lovely bloke - and, sadly, the series was starting to look cheap. Or cheaper. We can look back on them now with nostalgia and fondness but, at the time, I felt really sorry for them; they had a shoestring budget and the post-Star Wars cinema and TV sci-fi boom in the USA was putting our shows to shame. Colin was swiftly replaced by Sylvester McCoy but the show never seemed to quite recover. I still loved it and I watched it avidly. And, all the while, my collection of memorabilia continued to grow. I had the autographs of the first five Doctors. I had all of the annuals and Target and Peter Haining books. I had the Radio Times 10th and 20th anniversary special magazines and a pristine copy of the Radio Times The Five Doctors issue with that fantastic painted cover by Andrew Skilliter.

I'd also, quite bizarrely, taken possession of an original copper plaque of Doctor Who and the Seven Keys to Doomsday that had once graced the Adelphi theatre. While returning from the BBC after a meeting, I'd been discussing the show with a cabbie and he told me he had the plaque (he said he'd got it from his son who worked in theatre) and asked if I wanted to buy it. So I did. I then checked with the Adelphi to see if it was nicked (I was a cop after all!) but they expressed no interest in it at all. Extraordinary.

Anyway, as you know, the show eventually came to a grinding halt for all sorts of reasons and the last we saw of the Doctor for some time was McCoy's 1989 morality tale Survival, written by Rona Munro, one of a criminally few female writers on the show. McCoy was to return to the role one more time, albeit briefly, in the TV movie that introduced us to Paul McGann's eighth Doctor, but he did leave us a legacy of great audio adventures and appearances in the New Adventures books. These should not be swept under the carpet like Cushing's films and Trevor Martin's stage show often are. They filled a seven year void between 1989 and 1996, when the TV series was off air. Are they canon? I'm not sure. But with Paul McGann saluting his companions - Charley, C'rizz, Lucie, Tamsin and Molly from the Big Finish audio adventures - in Night of the Doctor there is an argument to say 'maybe' at least.

I even bought (to my eternal shame) the Doctor in Distress single. But hey ... it was for charity. And there was a precedence - I'd also bought Jon Pertwee's Who is the Doctor? years before. Yike.

The TV movie was the last that we'd see the Doctor for some time. And, while it had its flaws (and contradictory plot holes - the Doctor is half human??) it did give us Paul McGann who was fantastic in the role. But not fantastic enough for the sponsors, sadly, and the rogue Gallifreyan disappeared for a further nine years until Christopher Ecclestone brought him triumphantly back into our lives.

Again, the gap was bridged by books, audio adventures and even fan-made films so people like me were kept entertained. But it wasn't the same as having the show on TV and I'm genuinely sad that my own kids - born in 1985 and 1989 respectively - were part of the unfortunate generation who grew up without Doctor Who. Well, they didn't ... not as long as my video and, later, DVD player was functioning. In the meantime, I sold off all of my memorabilia to buy cots and prams and to get my first mortgage. It hurt, I can tell you. And, since the reboot, it would all now be worth so much more. Sobs! My one regret was selling the copper plaque. I didn't even have the sense to take a photo of it before I let it go. Such a shame. But, it did sell for a lot and I did need the money back then.

In the past five years or so I've made the effort to watch every single Doctor Who episode (and its spin-offs) that still exists. And, even if the episodes don't exist any longer, I've watched or listened to the reconstructions. It's been worth every minute and I got to relive some amazing childhood memories.

So, there you go. My 50 year relationship with the show continues unabated and I'm HUGELY looking forward to tonight's big anniversary special. I have occasionally been critical of the new series; I freely admit that I got very tired of the Rory/Amy soap opera that seemed to push the Doctor into playing an almost subordinate role. And some of Russell T Davies' more outrageous plot devices made me wince. But I've also shouted with joy from the rooftops at amazing stories like Dalek, Father's Day, The Girl in the Fireplace, Midnight, The Doctor's Wife and the amazing Blink. It's a show that continues to delight and surprise me and the knowledge that Peter Capaldi is going to take it into the future fills me with childish glee.

I may not have quite become part of it but it has become a part of me. It's been one of the bigger influences on my life and I'm a better writer today thanks to people like John Nathan-Turner, Jane Judge, Lindsey Alford, Neil Gaiman, Paul Cornell and the late, great Douglas Adams who all kindly offered me good advice. I've been lucky enough to meet five of the Doctors and I count among my friends people who write for the show, work on the show, write the books and audio adventures and who love the show as much as I do. Doctor Who has enriched my life.

So happy 50th birthday Doc. Here's to 50 more.

p.s. There's a great story attached to the photo of me with the Dalek (above). It was taken at the BBC in 2008 when I was doing some radio interviews about my first book and popped in on the production office to visit Lindsey the script editor. You might notice that the plunger is missing. The security staff had borrowed it during the night to unblock a sink. Absolutely true. It was on a draining board drying off when I got there. Joyous. :)

Friday, 22 November 2013

Scouse and about

And so, another busy week passes by. It all kicked off with a Sunday lecture at Conway Hall in London, home of the Ethical Society, followed by a swift trip to Leicester and back on Tuesday to do the same 'Skeptical Bobby' talk.

Wednesday saw me hanging out with renowned photographer and long-time chum Mark Page and nosing around his new Black Swan Studios premises before jumping on a train to Liverpool on Thursday to do my talk for the third time in a week for the Merseyside Skeptics. Three lovely gigs, three fantastic audiences.

And, as I was staying over in Liverpool for a night, I did have the opportunity to explore a little the next morning. I decided, therefore, to visit the Walker Art Gallery in St Johns. It's one of the few galleries, museums and places of interest that I've not visited in the city. I wasn't disappointed.

The exhibitions are a pleasant pot-pourri of styles, art movements and eras with 17th century paintings and sculptures rubbing shoulders with Pop Art, Pre-Raphaelite and Modern. There was also a very nice exhibition of early works by David Hockney . But it was the more recent stuff that really floated my boat. Like this piece of fabulousness - Harmony in Green by Dan Hays:

Yes, it's a hamster cage. But it's a hamster cage painted in oils and it's about six feet high. And when you look closely at the painting and you see all of the different colours - particularly greens - that make up the chrome bars and the spaces between the chrome bars it becomes quite abstract and quite beautiful.

One thing I LOVED about the Walker is that you can get really close to the artworks and look at them in detail. Some, like Fritz Spiegl's whimsical Loophonium (also known as the Harpichord) are even interactive - you press buttons and it plays music. Handel's Water Closet Music maybe?

Other pieces I liked included Sam Walsh's Three Figures in a Warm Climate and The Dinner Party:


Anish Kapoor's Red in the Centre:

... and Ivor Abrahams' Head of the Stairs:

There are so many others I could have mentioned by the likes of Terry Frost, Richard Slee, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Steve Howlett, Gillian Ayres, Lucien Freud, L S Lowry, Stephen Farthing, Alexis Harding and so many more but this blogpost would become unwieldy. Just go and look for yourselves!
I will, however, mention my favourite painting in the gallery. It's this one - The Exiled Forever Coming In To Land by Ged Quinn. 

It's an epic-sized painting in a classical style with lovely touches of surrealism.

Isn't it great?

Lastly, I must mention the gallery's collection of more classical art. It boasts work by Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt, Turner, Stubbs, Rossetti, Millais, Degas, Monet ... but, being a Modern Art kind of a guy, I won't go into them too much. However, I will pay homage by mentioning this classic work by William Frederick Yeames: And When Did You Last See Your Father?

It's a powerful piece isn't it? We see the little boy being interrogated by Cromwell's Roundheads regarding the whereabouts of his royalist Cavalier father. It's an innocent child being asked to give up his parent, in all likelihood having no idea that this will mean certain execution for dad. Is the young girl behind his sister? Is she crying because, being older, she understands the implications of his answers? As I said, powerful. And, once again, I have to stress what a joy it is to get so close to the artwork and see the individual brush strokes and the use of colour.

A lovely morning spent among lovely things. What makes the Walker Collection so interesting is the mix of old and new, classical and modern. There are touches of humour and whimsy too, such as the Loophonium and this marvellous unlabelled bust with the pixelated face. Just pull your face back from the screen a little. Brilliant isn't it?

That kind of sums up Liverpool's aesthetic; a strong artistic heritage, a celebration of history while moving forward, and all coupled together with a robust sense of humour. Wherever you go, you see street art, street theatre and performance. Even as I waited for my train back home, Lime Street Station was hosting Suitcase, a series of platform-based promenade performances that tell the story of the 1938 exodus of Jewish children - the Kindertransport - from mainland Europe to the UK. The stories were simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking and performed beautifully.

A splendid send off from a splendid city. I will go back again soon.