Sunday, 26 October 2014

Who 2

Or possibly, Who too.

I'm moved to change my plans for this week's post and to re-visit the Doctor after my post last week received more hits than the previous eight put together (thank you) - it seems not everyone agrees with my verdict on Peter Capaldi's incarnation though...

My opinion was, broadly, that he's the best thing since sliced bread (or rather Tom Baker - not sliced), and I like to think that this week's BBC 1 episode, In the Forest of the Night , rather proved a point or two.Although this was set in a very believable London, Capaldi's Doctor emanated a very strong sensation of 'alien' and that, when all is said and done, is very Doctor-y. I was even moved to chase down and watch the first of the Tennant episodes, and the parallel was close.

The Doctor has faced many enemies in the past in whatever incarnation he happened to be at the time, from rubbery giant worms through (vaguely) metallic Cybermen and Daleks (respectively to the young me, known as 'silver-paper men' and 'pointy-eye pepper pots'), to Time itself. He considers himself above any law in the need to protect a 'new' species such as us poor humans, and is - in Capaldi's very correct characterisation - more than happy to sacrifice the few for the many. Seldom, though, has he traveled with a companion who understands this, whether she entirely agrees or not, so Clara Oswald (an interesting name choice given real human history) is a breath of fresh air.

Companions have come and gone with remarkable frequency (some of them even managing to survive), and in its modern incarnation we have seen some of the strongest fellow travelers yet. Billie Piper's character, Rose Tyler (the Bad Wolf), was central to the plot for, quite literally, years and we saw her grow into the role in a manner that was as pleasing and powerful as it was different.

Before the 'new' Doctor arrived with a deeply amusing ear-tweak (thank you, Mr Eccleston), we were treated to more than 30 different partners/companions/waifs/strays, from the 1963 Susan through to Grace who traveled with the eighth Doctor (albeit briefly). One, Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, even had her own television series.

The earlier Doctor's were strictly forbidden by the BBC to become romantically involved with their companions, and in (poor) Peter Davison's case he was not even allowed to touch Nyssa or Tegan... Much later, the wonderful Catherine Tate character, Donna Noble, faced a dilemma thanks to mishearing the then Doctor (Tennant) explain that he just wanted 'a mate' - hearing it as 'I just want to mate'...

In any case, the latest companions (very much NOT assistants, as Rose Tyler vehemently tells Sarah Jane) are much more involved and independent creatures with Clara Oswald demonstrating the new trait admirably. Even the recent Doctors seem to take them more seriously with Tennant's incarnation actually refusing to travel with anyone following the 'loss' of Donna Noble (at least, until his next regeneration).

But there are more than direct companions who enrich the Doctor. I mentioned in my last post that Bernard Cribbins, who most current Doctor Who fans recognise as Wilfred Mott (Donna Noble's grandfather), was also an earlier companion to the Doctor. He appeared as Tom Campbell, a companion to Peter Cushing's Doctor in the 1966 film about a Dalek invasion of the planet and despite a forty year absence beside a Doctor, I gleefully recognised the link (poor old thing that I am).

Then there was Rose Tyler's mouthy mother, Jackie (Camille Coduri) who inadvertently saved the entire planet with a flask of tea, boyfriends such as Mickey Smith and Rory Williams, The Master in various guises, the occasional Brigadier, the mysterious River Song, and, of course, K9. My favourite though must be Penelope Wilton's character Harriet Jones - she introduces herself to all and sundry as 'Harriet Jones, Prime Minister' and I still snort a laugh or two when the 'We know' line comes back, even from aliens.

Companions have always been important to the Doctor (and the scripts) and were always a focal point within the various series. It's fairly obvious that the likes of Louise Jameson's Leela, Janet Fielding's Tegan and Mary Tamm's Romana were there to add some glamour to the mix (they certainly appealed to teenagers), and I count myself fortunate that I was old enough to NOT appreciate Bonnie Langford's Mel Bush (don't!) in quite the same way. These days though, as glamorous as the likes of Amy Pond and Clara Oswald might be, the Doctor's latest companions are very strong-minded, independent characters who provide context for the Gallifreyan. For the first time in a very long time (fortunately not a Doctor-based time-frame) we can see the dilemmas that he faces by seeing a knowing and intelligent human take on the situations.

The current Doctor appears more alien than ever as a result - a darker character with a deep sense of the bigger picture but with little or no sense of the tiny details. He's facing any number of conundrums about his past self (or rather, selves) and these are perfectly framed by the strong-willed Clara. The series has a couple of episodes left and [spoiler alert] we're going to see an old enemy or two. Quite how Capaldi's Doctor will react is, for me, as fascinating as my admiration for his take on the role.

We shall see. Unless the silver-paper men get us first.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Who he?

I've discovered that one of the few benefits that comes with being clapped out... I mean, of more mature years... is that I have been fortunate enough to experience a lot of things for a lot longer than my younger friends. A major claim to 'fame' along those lines is that I am old enough to remember the first Doctor Who, never mind all the ones who have followed since. I even remember when police boxes just like the Tardis really were to be found on a lot of streets,,,

To be fair, I only remember William Hartnell as a rather creepy old man (I was pre-school age when it started, after all) although I recall very clearly my fascination with his successor's recorder. For me, then, Patrick Troughton was the first doctor I have crystal-clear memories of. It was during the late sixties that I also recall my first real fear of anything fictional - the daleks and the cybermen.

The Daleks, those loveable (ahem) salt shakers, were downright creepy to a sub-ten year old but my father assured me that we were safe from them since even I had a talent they couldn't match - I could climb the stairs. The Cybermen, though, were an entirely different kettle of aluminium foil - those buggers could break through the toughest wall (always assuming it was made of cardboard - and who was to say my bedroom walls weren't?).

I admit it. I know how much of a cliche it sounds, but I genuinely and actually hid behind the sofa during more than one episode.

The transition between the second and third doctors was initially a huge disappointment - I'd become used to Patrick Troughton guarding me. Plus, I knew Jon Pertwee from his radio show, The Navy Lark, which was to my pre-teen mind like a cross between the Goons and Carry On. Surely a comedic actor was not right for such a guardian of the universe? MrTroughton saving the day at the end of each of the admittedly short series, and the whole concept of regeneration was, well,

wrong, of course. Jon Pertwee's flamboyant and rather weird character had me hooked very quickly - even if I thought his vintage car was naff. I became a teenager during his reign, newly confident that he could protect us from a the terrors of the universe. Especially the ones in such obviously rubber costumes (and no, I do NOT have an ongoing fascination for adults in rubber costumes). (Much).

But then came Tom Baker and his scarf. And his assistants (you must remember I was early teens when he started). The concept of 'Whovians' hadn't been born then (unless they can time travel for real), but that was probably just as well since I would have been one of the first members - and was limited by the concept of pocket money. The quirkiness and calm of his predecessors disappeared faster than a dalek on acid and I avidly followed Mr Baker's adventures all through my latter teen years. Such was his power, I even watched him more or less as much as his companions (K9 never appealed much anyway).

I was fortunate enough to find myself standing right in front of Tom Baker a few years later, in a hostelry in darkest Kent (a little more scary than some of the planets he visited), and I was enchanted by the big man's dazzling character - all teeth and bonhomie. It's probably just as well I didn't meet him while he was actually playing the Doctor or the embarrassment levels of my adulation might have become too much to bear in later life. There again, I guess I might have got Leela's phone number...

But then tragedy occurred, and when I was barely twenty Peter Davison appeared. In retrospect he was a great Doctor but I was both too preoccupied with being twenty and I had grown through my teens with Tom Baker - Mr Davison just didn't do it for me.

My love affair of the programme took a back seat to more fascinating pastimes (mostly women and motorcycles), and even a return to a Baker (Colin in 1984) held little interest for me. That I married for the first time later that year was neither here nor there despite the passing resemblance my new in-laws shared with one or two of the Doctor's foes.

Syvester McCoy's appearance three years later almost passed me by - whether we were all used to better effects by then or whether I had simply grown up (as opposed to grown up simply), I have no idea, but Doctor Who seemed far more like a children's programme than it had been when I was a child...

It ended before I was thirty and I didn't mourn its passing. I'd grown out of silly scarves by then, and was too busy regenerating myself (not a euphemism, I assure you). Naturally I watched the mini-series with Paul McGann in the lead role in 1996,just in case the Doc had grown up - but (sorry) it didn't do anything for me. I assumed the Time Lord was dead and buried as a TV spectacle.

But then... almost ten years (and a wife or two) passed and with a tremendous fanfare, the BBC told us that the Doctor would be reappearing. I was, along with many of the older generations, a tad sceptical. I seem to recall the word 'bollocks' being used occasionally, but then I noticed who was leading the operation and who would be the new doctor (the ninth, no less) and his companion. Russell T Davies had created some memorable and darkly amusing TV, Christopher Eccleston had portrayed some compelling dark characters and Billie Piper... well, she'd had a UK Hit and had married Chris Evans... perhaps it might be intriguing, after all.

It launched a shade under ten years ago and I was astonished. There was much less cardboard and rubber, for a start and with a Doctor who was quirky and darkly funny. Rose Tyler was just the right side of perpetually screaming, and the effects, script and supporting casts were stunningly good. And the bloody Daleks could climb stairs!

I fell in love with the programme all over again, but within a year we were all told that a new Doctor would already be making a regenerative appearance. My initial disappointment turned to something closer to joy when David Tennant (who I had always assumed would sound ever-so Scottish) took over the role.Not since Tom Baker had I enjoyed the character quite so much, and weekend plans had to change to ensure I didn't miss any episodes.

Billie Piper's farewell as Rose Tyler was great drama, no matter how sad. But then, of course, came Catherine Tate as Donna Noble and Freema Agyenan as Martha Jones (I'll ignore Kylie if it's all the same to you).

We also saw Bernard Cribbins in a compelling role - and perhaps I was among the very few who realised that, as a young man, Bernard Cribbins had been inadvertently roped into a dalek-led plot in a film adaptation with Peter Cushing as the eccentric Doctor...

Of course, all good things come to pass and Matt Smith took over from David Tennant but, for me at least, never with the same Doctory-ness.

I was, of course, naturally somewhat sceptical about a twelfth Doctor, although pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Peter Capaldi would be assuming the role. I'd known him most recently for the series The Thick Of It where as Malcolm Tucker he couldn't complete a sentence without swearing. Just what would be said when he saw his first Dalek I could only gleefully imagine (f*****g pepper pot was my favourite), and just how darkly quirky would he be?

My verdict, for what it's worth, is that he makes a quite brilliant Doctor. A shade darker than his predecessors, more than a shade more Scottish. Where David Tennant was, for me, the new face of the Doctor, then Peter Capaldi is the old face - and I'm not just talking ages here. I like this guy as my Doctor.

And I am still not a Whovian, I promise, but I do NOT hide behind sofas anymore.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Here in my car...

With totally unnecessary apologies to Gary Numan for the post's title, I find myself relating very closely to the song Cars after yesterday switching back to four wheels.

Just like music, cars have been a long-term love of mine - cars themselves and motorsport in general, formula one in particular.

That said, and despite my new-found Rover (already a 'she'), it's been a tough week for all followers of formula one following the horrific Jules Bianchi crash in Suzuka last weekend.

The sport regularly features on the back pages of the national newspapers, but - fortunately - very seldom as a front page headline. This week has seen more column inches written than in the past twenty years when the last death in formula one, that of Ayrton Senna, stunned race-goers and the general public alike.

As happens when a tragic accident occurs there are calls for greater safety and actions have already been taken by the sport's governing body. There have already been conflicting suggestions from the drivers themselves and the commentator Martin Brundle has spoken eloquently about his own experiences of a very similar accident he suffered when he was behind the wheel. In practice there is little we can do but hope - pray if you are of that ilk - that Jules survives and recovers.

Safety levels in formula one have made the sport so much safer than when drivers used to die on a regular basis when I was a boy in the sixties - and yet the spectacle, the nerve-grinding fever, remains just as compelling (for the likes of me, at least).

I was fortunate to attend a secondary school with a board of governors chaired by the legendary - and remarkably amusing - Graham Hill. Fortunate also to be allowed to attend races at Brands Hatch and Silverstone where I met most of the drivers of the time (Emerson Fittipaldi even gave me a lift on his scooter!).I saw Emerson, Carlos Pace, a young (really) Jody Scheckter, Mr Hill, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Jochen Mass, Carlos Reutemann, Lella Lombardi (the last woman to score a championship point - actually half a point), Ronnie Peterson, Tom Pryce and dozens more.

So many are now dead, although not all through racing exactly - I still remember the shock one Sunday
morning to learn that my favourite, Graham Hill, had died in an aircraft accident. A young star-to-be, Tony Brise, died alongside Hill - and it was just a few months after I'd had the privilege of interviewing both of them at Brands. You can probably imagine my joy when Graham's son, Damon (just a month older than me but a hundred times more talented behind a wheel), won the world championship in 1996. Hill junior's career will long be remembered for his tussles with Michael Schumacher, another driver who has suffered such a terrible injury since his retirement (

Ayrton Senna's death in Italy was the last terrible shock I received as a race fan - until last Sunday - but there have been so many accidents that could have resulted in far more serious outcomes. Contrary to the belief of some, it is not the crashes themselves that attract race fans, but it's the danger and the possibility of such accidents. No one who is a true fan of the sport would ever wish for such a thing and the sheer shock of what I felt seeing Bianchi's car cannot be overstated. Forza Jules, indeed.

Those who have never been to a race will not understand the power of the cars, even in their latest, smaller-engined, guise. A slow corner might be taken at fifty miles per hour and looks so pedestrian - but you try that in a road car! Or rather, don't you dare - you won't handle it.

I've just watched Lewis Hamilton win the inaugural Russian Grand Prix and extend his championship lead. Will he win the main prize? Probably/possibly, and I will cheer him all the way there. But do you realise it's now his eighth year in F1? Time flies almost as fast as his current drive.

And on that subject it's now thirty five years since I camped out at Brands Hatch with my then girlfriend, sneaking through the woods on the inside of the circuit so we weren't spotted - how times change. I can't sneak anymore, security is too tight anyway, and the days of girlfriends are long behind me...

The days of loving the sport continue though, even if the increasingly rare serious accidents still crop up from time to time.

There's three weeks before the next F1 race (in the USA), and I will no doubt spend much of the time enjoying my new second-hand car. It feels great to be capable of getting around again on my own (MS really can cramp the style), but I won't be trying to emulate Stirling Moss (even if I am looking increasingly like the eighty-five year old...).

Now, any suggestions for a name for her?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Music variety is the spice...

My recent posts regarding the various great musicians of our - and previous times - has had me rearranging my collection.

Don't fret too much, though, I'm not an obsessive-compulsive about this sort of thing (and shouldn't that really be CDO not OCD? After all, if you're going to be obsessive, surely the letters should be in alphabetical order...).

Anyway, I don't bother with putting my favourites in any particular order other than collecting all of the singles together. That sounds like an obvious thing given that singles tend to be seven inches in diameter compared to the whole foot you get with most albums, but I confess that I have now switched to purely digital files. I have to say, despite my age, that the advantages far outweigh - or rather, under-weigh - the old collection of plastic that seemed to attract dust from every corner of the planet. Probably even from passing meteors.

Another major advantage is the fact that you can sit anywhere you please and listen to whatever takes your fancy for hours and hours without doing anything more physical than clicking a mouse.Sure there was some sort of pleasure to be gained by lovingly cleaning a spiraled piece of PVC before gently placing it on a turntable and equally gently guiding a diamond-tipped needle into the groove. There again, it now doesn't matter if a dog decides to nudge the back of my knees when I start to play a track. Of course I miss the screech occasionally (the one associated with the stylus and the record, not the one I habitually give when nudged by a nosy canine), but I can rest safe in the knowledge that my digital recording will always be in perfect, non-mutted condition.

Thanks to the 'shuffle' feature of virtually all music players these days, I don't even have to choose a running order - so gone are the hours spent sorting and re-sorting all the discs before invariably changing my mind about the playing order.

Then, of course, there's visibility. No more 'it's-a-black-and-white-label-therefore-it's-probably-The Specials-but-it's-faded-so-much-I-can't read-it -Oh-bugger-I-didn't-realise-Kylie-recorded-for-them' (and no, I don't really own any Minogue). These days, if I wander (wobble) through the kitchen and spot a Mars Bar, I can go to my laptop and find The Ballad of Lucy Jordan in a matter of seconds. I'll leave you to work out that particular psychological link...

But back to my sorting. I've now got eighty single tracks gathered in a folder named 'Old Shit' that gets played with alarming frequency. Artists include Robert Palmer, Kate Bush, ELO, Squeeze, George Harrison, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, Meredith Brooks, The Pretenders, ZZ Top, Jilted John (no, really), Kirsty MacColl, Shakespeare's Sister... a quick count here shows me that for the eighty tracks, sixty-four different artists are present and I'm not talking Band Aid-esque collections. There's probably fifty or sixty different styles of music as well although C&W seems absent (Labelled With Love doesn't count).

And talking of a Squeeze classic, I find it endlessly wonderful that each and every track can immediately bring back a shed-load of memories - most happy, some a little sad (I really had just split up with a girl called Julie when I first heard Jilted John) - but each and every recollection is powerful. By the way, I'm not keen on Mars Bars. The memories don't even have to be relevant to the track or its title. I'm fairly sure I've never been Paranoid (well that's what they all tell me, anyway), and I've never been a Soldier, Toy or otherwise. I've never driven all night and gone underground to enjoy a dreadlock holiday, and I'm pretty certain no one has ever suggested I was as cool as a cat. Cool as slush, maybe.

Given that what remains is just a fragment of the hundreds of records - in all media - I have owned over the years, I guess I can be pretty sure that I am left with those items that carry the most meaning for me. But having said that, every time I look through the collections I'm reminded of tracks that are missing and which I want to hear again. Or I hear a new artists and desperately want to hear more of them. Or I feel like trying something again which I didn't really enjoy first time round. Or... and that's when I know for sure that music is desperately important to me.

You will know by now if you've read any of my earlier posts (more than 1,000 page views so far, so I know there's at least a few of you who read regularly - thank you) that my first love these days is writing. But I never, ever write without something playing in the background. Right this second it's Alice Cooper and next up will be Billy Idol - and yes, I do keep my Frankenstein fed and yes, I have had a White Wedding. Or two.

Music comes in all shapes and forms (not a reference to Iggy Pop, I promise), and for me at least, it remains so very important. I once conducted an impromptu survey among work colleagues, asking them to name their favourite artists. I gave up after fifteen people when I realised that I had fifteen different answers - I guessed that I would get different answers from some a week and a mood later, but just that first round of questions told me all I really needed to know. We all hear things a little differently, all see things within a track that means something a little different to each of us - and isn't that a joy?

Music is so important.