Wednesday, January 10, 2018


This morning, the Dr and I took our poorly, frail cat Shaggy to the vet one last time, where he was quietly put to sleep. It was quick. It has all been horribly, mercifully quick.

For months now, he’s been losing weight and confidence, no longer daring to go outside in the cold and wet, let alone to brave the domains of Other Cats that he once kept in line. Then, in the last few weeks, he’s taken a sudden turn for the worse and been miserable, too. This morning, there was no fight to get him into his carrier, no resistance at all.

Thirteen and a half years ago, Shaggy was my wedding present to the Dr. Growing up, she’d not had any pets but could never pass a cat in the street without stopping to say hello (she still can’t). The day after we got back from honeymoon, on 14 July 2004, we headed to what’s now Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

The Dr was jumpy with excitement, so my role was to be the cool, collected one. I reminded her on our way in that we’d been warned not to expect to take a cat home that first day. No, this was just the start of the process. We were interviewed about our past experience with pets (I grew up with cats, dogs and chickens), about the kind of home we could provide and whether there were dangers such as nearby busy roads. They concluded we needed a nice “entry-level” pet. There was a colour-coded system: we were told to look for green cats.

Then we were led upstairs to where the cats were waiting. They were all in individual hutches, inset into the wall floor to ceiling, each with a card giving details of their temperament and background. Older, crosser cats had red stickers. One particularly furious red beast glared at us from its cell. The yellow cats did a better job of imploring us to love them. The green cats hardly seemed to notice us at all.

As instructed, we looked at the green cats. They were… cats. All very nice but nothing exactly suggestive of how we were meant to choose.

Then they let some green cats out, one at a time, so we could get a better idea. One dark-haired cat with both green and yellow stickers was set down on the floor and wandered nonchalantly off, barely glancing our way. The Dr had his card and asked why he’d been called “Shaggy”. The person showing us round grinned and clapped her hands. It made us jump – and Shaggy, too. His thick, long hair all stood up on end, an endearing scruffy mess.

Sensing our interest in this ridiculous creature, it was suggested we pick him up. The Dr was nervous, so I went first. Shaggy immediately collapsed into my arms, snuggling up like a baby. That did it for my cool composure.

Now it seemed that we might get to take this purring fur-bag home with us that same day. That was, if we could sign all the paperwork and buy up all the equipment we needed before Battersea closed for the evening. There was a bit of a scramble and some crossed wires, but finally we were in our cab home – cradling our new cat.

Back home, we did as instructed and shut ourselves in one room before letting Shaggy out of his carrier. The idea was not to scare him with too much at once: he could get used to one room at a time. (Years later, our surviving cat, Stevens, was so terrified on her first evening with us that she spent the night clinging to the top of a door, and only came down to pee all over the floor.)

Shaggy was never shy. He immediately took charge of the room – our bedroom – and was then scratching at the door. Within an hour or so he’d taken charge of our flat. And that night, we were woken by his happy howls on discovering the mouse problem we’d inherited from our previous tenants. Shaggy, for all he was a beautiful, soft fluffball, was a very practical mouser.

He was always a character. When one friend came round to meet him, Shaggy playfully climbed on to a potted plant in the front room and – brazenly staring all of us out – proceeded to crap in it. He was fascinated by frogs, scooping them up from the old pond at the end of the garden and bringing them into show us them leaping around. When the Dr was bedridden with sickness, he helpfully dropped a frog on her head.

In short, we’d hoped for a good entry-level cat and Shaggy was magnificent. Affectionate, cheeky and rarely ill until these last few weeks, he’s given us a very easy ride. He’s been quick to warm to friends and neighbours (I discovered he’d been getting second breakfasts across the road each morning). More than that, he’s seen us – the Dr especially – through plenty of tough times over the years, always knowing when to pad softly over for a cuddle and that deep bass purr.

He had such a close bond with the Dr that we worried how he might respond to children, and so got a second cat in part to prepare him. But Shaggy was just as affectionate with the interloper cats and then with the children, snuggling up to them and suffering their clumsy but well-meant attention. One friend used to guarantee good behaviour from his daughter with the promise of visiting Shaggy.

For our own Lord of Chaos, Shaggy has always been part of the family, and they had one last cuddle this morning before school. His name is one of Lady Vader’s few but well-practised words. It’s hard to tell how much they take in what’s been happening or how it will affect them. I suspect the main issue they’ll have to deal with is their tender parents.

We knew Shaggy was getting on in years. He was a kittenish 15 months-old when we acquired him so would have been coming up to 15 years now, somewhere between 75 and 90 depending how you calculate cat years. That’s not a bad age, and it’s not been a bad life – doted on by the Dr and spoilt rotten when I wasn’t looking. You could tell when he wasn’t happy, and that’s been mostly rare: when we didn’t share prawns or tuna; when we were ever packing a bag he couldn’t climb into; in his long war of passive aggression against my mother-in-law; in these last few weeks.

This morning the Dr and I went with him to the vet, and soon it was all over. We buried him with his favourite pink mouse toy in the garden, in the corner he’d always made his own because it caught the sun.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2018

The Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2018 is out in shops now. Among its myriad delights are some things I did the typing on:

An interview with Stephanie Hyam, who played Heather - the enigmatic student, spooky puddle and love interest of Bill Potts.

Sound engineer Cathy Robinson details how the especially unsettling "binaural" sound mix for Knock, Knock was achieved.

Ysanne Churchman tells me about returning to Doctor Who after 43 years to reprise the role of Alpha Centauri.

Many of my previous interviews with Doctor Who cast and crew can be read on the Koquillion site.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Syfy Wire

On Christmas Day, I was the guest of Jordan Zakarin and Emily Gaudette on Syfy Wire's podcast The Fandom Files, chatting about my Doctor Who stuff such as The Book of Whoniversal Records and other things I'm writing, including the TV series Flame.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

I was entranced by Moonglow, the novel by Michael Chabon in which he supposedly recounts his own grandfather's life. It's a gently told, funny, awful tale of love and loss, continually surprising with its wit and heart.

Perhaps it struck a particular chord because earlier this year I helped my parents finish a memoir of family history - how they met, how their parents met, stuff they could remember. There's the same haphazardness and chance encounter, the same brushes with Big Moments in History, and the cold pang for people now gone.

But Chabon's grandfather is also a keen space nerd, and how that weaves through his life and what it means to him is compelling. A running thread is his pursuit of Wernher von Braun during the Second World War, and his horror at then seeing this Nazi officer at the head of the American space programme. What could so easily be preachy is resolved in a nuanced way full of complex emotion, tying in to what we uncover about the wartime experinece of Chabon's grandmother. Then there's a funny bit about a cat.

Footnotes add or correct details from the grandfather's remembrance, and the following one struck me hard. The Saturn V rocket that took people to the Moon, was,
"still, over four decades after flying its last mission, the only vehicle ever built capable of carrying human beings beyond a low earth orbit."
Michael Chabon, Moonglow, p. 249.
See also:

Monday, November 27, 2017

"The Man With Two Brains" in the Lancet Psychiatry

"Me and my brain" is a piece I've written about 1983 comedy The Man with Two Brains, and the history of brain transplants in fiction more generally, for the new issue of the Lancet Psychiatry (vol. 4, no. 12, December 2017). You need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but the Lancet website boasts the opening paragraph:
"The Man with Two Brains (1983), the classic comedy starring Steve Martin, is about a love triangle. Beautiful but wicked Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) is hit by a car driven by neurosurgeon Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin). He saves her life and falls for her but, once married, Dolores delights in tormenting him. Then Michael meets someone else. He has a lot in common with nice Anne Uumellmahaye (voiced by Sissy Spacek)—not least an unpronounceable surname. The only snag is that she's a brain in a jar."
And the Lancet Psychiatry tweeted the following tantalising excerpt:
"Despite the jokes, fun, and adventure, there's something deeply unsettling about the idea of brain and mind transplants. It plays on anxieties about the distinction between our physical body and our identity, and the linked fear of our bodies failing us through accident, illness, or decrepitude, redefining who we are. It speaks to anxieties about our own uniqueness and autonomy, and the threat of personal annihilation. And then there's the ongoing concern of how scientific and economic change threatens our personal control. It's ripe for further exploration, not just in research but in comedy and horror, because it's a subject best met with nervous laughter."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Grim's Dyke house in Doctor Who and other film and TV

Earlier this year, the Dr took me to stay at Grim's Dyke house – now a hotel – in Harrow Weald, which was used as a location in episodes 3, 4 and 5 of the 1967 Doctor Who story The Evil of the Daleks. What follows is an expanded version of material from my Black Archive book examining that story, plus photos from our visit...

It was production assistant Tim Combe who found the house. "I was living in Richmond when I got married in 1965," he told me. "But we were thinking of moving to north London, and I did quite a lot of looking round houses, going to estate agents and generally just driving around. I think I first saw it then."

The BBC's Written Archive Centre holds six production files for The Evil of the Daleks, and the first of these - file T5/2,531/1 - shows that Combe visited Grim's Dyke again on 6 April 1967 to check its potential for Doctor Who. That was also when he spotted the adjacent field used for the scenes of Kennedy snooping on the Doctor in episode 1; he learned who owned that field by asking in the local pub. On 7 April, Rae Pickthrone, an assistant in the BBC's television finance department, agreed a fee of £120 for the use of Grim's Dyke with Mr Sewell, the engineer and surveyor for the Borough of Harrow, covering the location filming that would take place at Grim's Dyke on 20, 24 and 25 April.

Grim's Dyke was built between 1870 and 1872, designed by architect Norman Shaw for the painter Frederick Goodall. Shaw had already made his name pioneering a particular style of old English house with a Gothic influence – evident in Grim's Dyke, especially in distinctive Gothic arches that can be seen in the photographs above.

After the Goodall family sold the house in 1880, it passed to the banker Robert Herriot and then to the librettist WS Gilbert – of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. He had a boating lake constructed there, in which he swam every day – and in which he died in 1911. His widow lived on at Grim's Dyke until her death in 1936, after which the house was put up for auction.

"Officially, whatever role the house played in the 2nd World War is classified, and not due for release until the 2040s," says the Grim's Dyke hotel website. So, fittingly for Doctor Who, it's a house of secrets. After the war, the house was used as a rehabilitation centre for men suffering from tuberculosis; that centre closed in 1963, and when Tim Combe arrived in 1967 the house was out of use.

That made it perfect for filming; the sources in what follows are IMDB unless otherwise listed. A year after the rehabilitation centre closed, young film-makers Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo used Grim's Dyke as a location in their war film It Happened Here (1965), as detailed on Reel Streets.

In November 1965 it was used for the colour pilot episode of the adventure series The Saint, The Russian Prisoner, broadcast by ATV London and ATV Midlands in October 1966. The same series returned to the house for The Fiction Makers, filmed from the week of 20 May to the week of 17 June 1966 but not broadcast on TV until December 1968 (having failed to secure a release as a movie). [Source: p. 6 of Andrew Pixley's notes for The Saint: Original Soundtrack.]

A month after Doctor Who filmed at Grim's Dyke, The Champions used the house as a location in The Mission, filmed during the weeks of 24 and 31 May 1967 – the first of four episodes filmed there. A month later, during the week of 21 June, the same series filmed The Experiment with Grim's Dyke as one of the locations. In October, Grim's Dyke was used for The Body Snatchers and in January/February 1968, it was used in The Final Countdown. [Source: Michael Richardson's production notes for The Champions DVD, Network, 2006.]

Grim's Dyke was a location used in the horror film The Blood Beast Terror, which began filming on 7 August 1967, and The Devil Rides Out, which began filming on 28 August the same year.

Filming began on The Curse of the Crimson Altar on 22 January 1968 [Source: Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic, p. 178.] It's thought that this was the last film that Boris Karloff worked on (though not the last to be released). "During some rain-soaked sequences [while filming at Grim's Dyke]. Karloff contracted pneumonia, which can hardly have helped alleviate the emphysema which, on 2 February 1969, would kill him. " [Rigby, p. 179.]

As well as horror films, Grim's Dyke appears in the Academy award winning drama The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which began filming on 29 April 1968.

On 13 June 1968, a 2nd unit crew from The Avengers shot material for the episode Game at Grim's Dyke. [Source: Michael Richardson's Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots, p. 660.] Also in June 1968, filming took place on But What a Sweet Little Room, an episode of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and that series returned on 12 August to film material for You Can Always Find a Fall Guy.

From 21 October to 7 November 1968, filming took place on The Killing Bottle, an episode of Journey to the Unknown. The series Department S filmed a Grim's Dyke in April 1969 for the episode The Bones of Byrom Blain. [Source: Michael Richardson's production notes on the Department S DVD set.]

Another horror film, Cry of the Banshee filmed from 20 October 1969. The comedy Futtocks End seems to have been at Grim's Dyke later in the year. The murder mystery Endless Night began filming on 7 June 1971, the TV series The Adventurer began filming on The Case of the Poisoned Pawn in autumn 1972, and in November filming was conducted on K is for Killing, an episode of Thriller.

It's worth listing these productions because they almost all use the house in a very different way to Doctor Who. Most are set in the present, though Cry of the Banshee is set in Elizabethan England, The Blood Beast Terror in the 19th century, The Devil Rides Out in the 1920s and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the 1930s. The house adds grandeur and elegance. Usually, it has been dressed and lit to appear at its best, but looking carefully we can see damage and wear: it's a faded grandeur, suggesting decay and decadence in the horror films, and in both The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Futtocks End that the past – its bricks and its values – struggles to survive in the modern world.

In Doctor Who, the state of the house suggests something ironic. Just as the first episode and half of The Evil of the Daleks has genuine antiques that are nevertheless brand new, something similar is going on with the house. As it appears in the story, it is old and decayed, but – given events are set in 1866 – it ought to be brand new...

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Worthing Wormhole

On Saturday, I'll be a guest at Worthing Wormhole, a sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk event starting at 10 am in the Assembly Hall, Worthing. I'll be talking about the science in Doctor Who and signing books.

Full details - and tickets - from the Worthing Wormhole website.