Bertie Bassett


How is the copyright on a liquorice allsort and a caricature of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher connected?

In February 2010, Sylvester McCoy who played the seventh Doctor Who from 1987 to 1989, claimed, according to DailyTelegraph, that he and Andrew Cartmel, a script editor at the time, were part of a conspiracy in the late 1980s to give episodes of Doctor Who an anti-Thatcher plot. In the article, McCoy, who took over as Doctor Who three months after Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, said that they brought politics into the show ‘deliberately’ but ‘very quietly … We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered’.

Cartmel, who was asked by the programme’s producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, what he hoped to achieve in being the show’s script editor, recalled ‘My exact words were: I’d like to overthrow the government.’ In an article in The Guardian however in 2013, John Nathan-Turner is said to have replied ‘Oh you can’t do that on Doctor Who, all you can do is say that purple people and green people are equal and should live in harmony’.

Sheila Hancock with Ronald Fraser as Joseph C. Though Sheila Hancock was not told that the character of Helen A was based on Margaret Thatcher, she realised this early on and ‘went for it’. Hancock stated that she ‘hated Mrs Thatcher with a deep and venomous passion’.

The Happiness Patrol written by Graeme Curry was broadcast in three episodes in November 1988 and was part of the 25th series of Doctor Who. It featured a transparent caricature of Thatcher, Helen A, the vicious and egotistical ruler of an Earth colony Terra Alpha, played by Sheila Hancock. On Terra Alpha, sadness is against the law – a law zealously enforced by the Happiness Patrol. The penalty for those found guilty of gloom or melancholy is death in a stream of molten candy prepared by Helen A’s chief executioner and confectioner supreme, the psychopathic and robotic killer, Kandy Man, played by David John Hope.

The first episode opens with the Doctor, and his young companion Ace, travelling to Terra Alpha to investigate why its citizens are disappearing without trace. The last episode shows the time travellers helping to foment rebellion amongst the downtrodden population who toil in the factories and mines. The Doctor calls on the ‘drones’ to down their tools and revolt. The script-writers intended this to be an echo of the miners’ strikes and printers’ disputes during Thatcher’s first two terms in office.

Doctor Who confronts the Kandy Man. The appearance of the Kandy Man has been variously described as the weirdest or most ridiculous monster of the era. The Doctor however simply outwits the Kandy Man by gluing him to the floor with lemonade.

In the final episode, while a revolution rages outside the palace walls, the Kandy Man is destroyed by a flow of his own ‘fondant surprise’ which dissolves his external candy shell. And in a low-key comeuppance, the Doctor confronts Helen A and tries to explain that happiness can only be understood if counterbalanced by sadness. As Helen A weeps over her dearly departed lapdog monster Fifi, she experiences her own sadness.

Cartmel said that ‘Critics, media pundits and politicians certainly didn’t pick up on what we were doing. If we had generated controversy and become a cause célèbre we would have got a few more viewers but, sadly, nobody really noticed or cared’. The story has been described as a political allegory of Thatcher’s Britain, and as a morality tale. The Daily Telegraph article added that a spokesman for the BBC said it was ‘baffled’ by the claims. Following falling viewing numbers, no further series of Doctor Whowere commissioned after the 26th series in November 1989. Except of course in 2005, the BBC relaunched Doctor Who after a 16-year absence.

But there was an amusing footnote to this failed attempt at subversion. After the second episode was aired, H B Stokes, the chairman and CEO of Bassett Foods wrote a letter of complaint on 10 November 1988 to John Nathan-Turner, stating that the Kandy Man infringed on the copyright for his company’s mascot, Bertie Bassett. Following an internal investigation, the BBC Copyright Department replied to Bassett Foods saying that there had been no violation of Bassett’s copyright, but assuring the company that the Kandy Man would not return to the series. One can’t help feeling that the Kandy Man might have done a lot for the sales of liquorice allsorts.

A counter claim for the creation of Bertie in 1926 by Frank Regan comes from advertising executive Stanley Back who said that in 1948 he was ‘messing about’ with sweets on the table during a marketing meeting at Bassett’s. The sweets somehow managed to form the figure that became Bertie. However Bertie had been around long before 1948.

Bertie Bassett, a humanoid figure made of liquorice allsorts, who swings his cane and entertains children, is well known in British popular culture, at least to lovers of confectionery. The origins of Bertie are credited to advertising copywriter Frank Regan, who used the sweets and a number of pipe-cleaners to construct Bertie in 1926.

Liquorice allsorts themselves are said to have come about in 1899 when Bassett’s salesman Charlie Thompson was discussing an order with a customer. By accident his tray of samples was knocked onto the floor. While Thompson was desperately trying to pick them up, the buyer took an interest in the mixture of oddly shaped sweets, and placed an order there and then. After that Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts quickly went into mass production.

But Kandy Man and Bertie Bassett are not forgotten.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to the Happiness Patrol in his 2011 Easter sermon, on the subject of happiness and joy. I wonder how many people would have remembered those episodes of Doctor Who?

And in a bid to boost sales, Bassett’s staged a mock wedding between actors dressed as Bertie and Betty Bassett, another character made of sweets, at its Sheffield factory, in February 2009. You can watch it on YouTube here.

You can read Daily Telegraph article here, and a different take on what happened in 1988 from The Guardian here.


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