Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Dalek Factor

Out on Blu-ray and DVD this week is the new animation recreating The Evil of the Daleks, a seven-episode Doctor Who story from 1967 of which only episode 2 still survives. The wealth of extras include making-of documentary The Dalek Factor produced by Steve Broster. It includes me rabbiting on a bit wild-eyed and excited to be talking to anyone outside my immediate family.

As the caption says, I wrote a book about The Evil of the Daleks for the Black Archive series, which is still available and rather good.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #569

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine includes two things by me.

First, the ingenious Gavin Rymill and Rhys Williams have reconstructed in CGI another studio floor plan from a missing episode of the series, this time the first part of The Macra Terror (1967). Rhys and I have written the accompanying words, trying to make sense of exactly how the story was realised with so little money, time and space.

Then, the latest instalment of Sufficient Data tackles the important subject of what, exactly, the Second Doctor keeps in his capacious pockets and when we first see each item. As always, the infographic is by Ben Morris but this time I shared the exhaustive research with Andrew Ledger, who undertook the extraordinary feat of rewatching every extant Troughton episode to be sure we hadn't missed anything.

Friday, September 10, 2021

I’m Just the Guy Who Says Action, by Alvin Rakoff

At the end of this fascinating, moving memoir, the TV and film director Alvin Rakoff recalls a final conversation with his dying wife, the actress Jacqueline Hill. She wanted him to tell her about the holidays they’d enjoyed, such as exploring Spain and Portugal in a dilapidated old car.

“The past, as I said, is a sunshine memory. I ranted on. Embellishing certain characters, exaggerating minor problems, emphasising funny moments, trying hard to remain focused on storytelling.” (p. 170)

The implication, surely, is that much of the rest of the book has been gilded. And yet the thing that strikes me is how packed it is with telling, honest detail. It’s largely about the production of a live TV drama, Requiem For A Heavyweight, in 1957, and Rakoff giving Sean Connery his first leading role (with a small role for Michael Caine, too). The play, he says, is now lost to the ether: a scratchy audio recording of most of it survives, as well as some photographs and the camera script full of Rakoff’s notes on how it should be staged and framed. YouTube also has the original, US version - directed by Ralph Nelson and with Jack Palance in the lead role.  

But the book is less an effort to recreate the lost production as to share a vivid sense of the thrill and terror of making it, what it cost Rakoff and his leading lady and then-girlfriend Hill emotionally, and - for all its success - the uncertain time that followed. How extraordinary the commissioning process seems today. Roughly every eight weeks, Rakoff would be summoned to see Michael Barry, “HDTel” or Head of Drama for the BBC’s sole TV station. Even the description of Barry’s office is striking:

“Curtains forever drawn. One dim bulb from a desk lamp, the only source of light. Presumably so he could more readily monitor the output from the nearby studios, relayed through the dark-wooded set in the corner. He himself wore his customary alpaca jacket over armband-hitched shirt sleeves. Complete, of course, with a tie.” (p. 151)

“He would give me a broadcast date. Nothing more. And as I would leave his office he always added, ‘A comedy would be good. A comedy would fit well into the schedule. See if you can find a comedy.’ Neither I nor any of his other subordinates managed to find many comedies. I would go away. Find a play. Buy it. Print it. Cast it. Involve a designer. Consult make-up, hair, wardrobe. Rehearse. Work out a camera script. … Then into the studios for broadcast. Live. Collapse with crew and cast for a few drinks after the show. The next day I would be back in Michael’s office and he would praise what I had done - usually - or tell me - a rarity - if he hadn’t liked it. … The meeting would again end with him telling me the date of my next commitment. And as I got to the door, the inevitable phrase came, ‘See if you can find a comedy.’ The routine was cyclical.” (p. 34)

Then, after Requiem, when Rakoff is too exhausted to commit immediately to the next production, Barry treats it as betrayal and pretty much casts him adrift - at least, for a time. Rakoff picks up with the noted film producer Michael Balcon, who seems to wield just as extraordinary power and hold just as powerful grudges.

There are plenty of insights into the mechanics of making TV at the time - the cameras, the politics, the personalities to be juggled, the impact of that work. For example, he notes how Look Back in Anger revolutionised British theatre when it was first staged by the Royal Court in 1956.

“A revolution, incidentally, started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (p. 111)

We follow the production of Requiem through casting and rehearsals, into Studio D at Lime Grove Studios, where there was so little space that one set had to be constructed around the moving actors as the play was broadcast live. Tension mounts as rehearsal after rehearsal fails to get this trick shot right, just one of a hundred stresses to contend with - the account of the live performance makes exhilarating reading. But it’s the details that make it so vivid: the etiquette of getting rounds in for the crew in the British Prince pub down the road, or of Connery bringing his then girlfriend to sit in on rehearsals, of Rakoff and Hill keeping emotionally distant while working together, of the crisis in their relationship.

It’s often very honest - about their sex life and about other people’s bad behaviour - and there’s an edge to some of the humour, Rakoff and Hill finding a couple of incidents comic that I felt more disturbing. But then perhaps that’s the gilding. When Rakoff is comforting his very ill wife with tales of that perfect 11-week holiday in 1960, she makes a typically insightful remark.

“Only poor people can afford [such] long holidays … Nobody wanted us back here.” (p. 170.)

See also:

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

The winner of the 2020 Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel of the year is a sprawling epic, charting the lives of multiple generations in Kalingalinga, Zambia, from the arrival of British coloniser Percy M Clark on 8 May 1903.
"I set out for the drift five miles above the [Victoria] Falls, the port of entry into North-western Rhodesia. The Zambesi is at its deepest and narrowest here for hundreds of miles, so it's the handiest spot for 'drifting' a body across. At first it was called Sekute's Drift after a chief of the Leya. Then it was Clarke's Drift, after the first white settler, whom I soon met. No one knows when it became The Old Drift." (p. 4)
We follow the course of this settlement to some time in our own future, the world transformed by technology, the [HIV] Virus and [climate] Change.

For much of its 563 pages I was wondering how it qualified as science-fiction. There's an element of fantasy in the life of Sibilla (born 1939), the Italian girl-woman-grandmother who's entire body and face are covered in thick, fast-growing hair; Agnes (born 1943) plays tennis despite being blind; Matha (born 1948) weeps without stopping for decades, her eyelashes knitting together. Before that stage of her life, there's something delightful about the period in the mid-60s where Matha is an afronaut in the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, whose revolutionary aim is to beat the super-powers to the Moon.
"The ten-foot copper cylinder was propped on its end in the grass, listing peaceably, its bottom quarter singed black from pre-launch testing. The take-off had been disappointing from the point of view of spectacle - Cyclops I had only risen six feet before it crashed to the ground. The mukwa wood catapult he had been considering would not be powerful enough; the mulolo system, while ideal for training cadets to withstand weightlessness, would never swing far enough. Turbulent propulsion was the only way forward!" (p. 162)
It's an often very funny book, full of rascal characters dodging their way through life. In many cases they have little choice if they are to survive. Existence here is often brutal, with sudden, shocking moments of violence and loss and betrayal. Each chapter focuses on a different character's perspective, and we know from the family tree at the start that they - or their descendants - are to intertwine. There's a lot of mixture: of race and culture, of research and technology into people's everyday lives, of history seeping into present such as the effect that an old recording can have on succeeding generations.

In the last section of the book, we veer into more hard sf territory, with the populace encouraged to have "Beads" implanted in their hands, which give them access to the internet and an in-built torchlight, but also puts them at the mercy of their government and foreign pharmaceutical powers, and have racial / colonial undertones. Threads that have woven through much of the story come together: racism, technology, revolutionary politics, the ways we mark and amend our bodies with haircuts, tattoos, implants...

An earlier winner of the Clarke Award, Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones, annoyed me because its benign political future was, I felt, so lacking in detail - as if all that is required to create a utopia is well-meaning people in charge. The Old Drift offers a more complex, nuanced view full of unintended consequences and a sense of greater context - the lives of the people of Zambia affected by its history with Europe, present dealings with America and China, and an uncertain global future given dramatic changes in climate. The last pages, where a revolution kind of happens by accident, is exciting and scary and sci-fi, yet credible - I think because it embraces that chaos, the complexity of the mix, the uncertainty of outcome.

A brief coda then drops some bombshells. The voice who has spoken between each chapter is not what they seemed but - fittingly - something more complex and mixed-up. They tell us, abruptly, of the sudden death of one of the main characters, and of a son born into a new, uncertain world very different from all we've witnessed so far, we hope but not necessarily better. There's no sense of what his life might entail, just that life will, somehow, continue, all of this part of a far bigger picture, as we all slowly drift among the stars.