Posts Tagged ‘doctor who’

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, ronald fraser, happiness patrol, doctor who, bbc, margaret thatcher

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, kandy man, happiness patrol, bbc

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 Who were commissioned after the 26th series in November 1989. Except of course in 2005, the BBC relaunched Doctor Who after a 16-year absence.

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r u r, karel capek, bbc, robot, science fiction

The BBC screened adaptations of the 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek in 1938 & 1948. The word ‘robot’ was originally coined in this play.

Doctor Who may well be the longest-running science-fiction television series in the UK, having been broadcast for 33 seasons since 1963, but it wasn’t the first science-fiction programme. That distinction belongs to a 35-minute abridged adaptation of a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R.U.R. (sub-titled Rossum’s Universal Robots) which presents a world which first exploits its new servile creations, robots, and is then dominated by them. It was produced by the BBC on 11 February 1938, and it is the first known piece of television science fiction anywhere in the world. A full ninety-minute live production of R U R was produced on 4 March 1948.

quatermass experiment, bbc, 1953, science fiction

The Quatermass Experiment was made by the BBC in 1953. It was Britain’s first science fiction TV programme aimed at an adult audience

In the summer of 1953, BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale created, together with director and producer Rudolph Cartier, the six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment, the first of several Quatermass serials. It was Britain’s first science fiction television programme aimed at an adult audience. Only the first two episodes were recorded, and these only as poor-quality tele-recordings. These are the oldest BBC recordings of any fictional series today. Note that as colour television was only introduced in the UK in July 1967, all programmes up to then were in black and white.

On 12 December 1954, a live adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, produced by the BBC’s Quatermass team, achieved the highest television ratings since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was so controversial that it was debated in Parliament, and campaigners tried unsuccessfully to have the second performance the following Thursday banned.

Britain’s first commercial television network, Independent Television, was launched in September 1955 as a competitor to the BBC. According to most buffs and compilers of TV history, commercial television’s first science-fiction serial was Pathfinders In Space, produced by ABC, a network licensee, in 1960. This was followed by the sequels Pathfinders to Mars (1960) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). However this was not the first. Several science-fiction serials were in fact produced not long after the launch of commercial television, but if any recordings of them were made, they have been lost.

the strange world of planet x, film, tv serial, science fiction

The title still from the film version of The Strange World of Planet X released in 1958. No recordings of the earlier TV serial made in 1956 are believed to exist

In September 1956, ATV (Associated Television), the licensee for London weekend television, produced The Strange World of Planet X, shown in six 25-minute episodes as part of its Saturday Serial anthology series. Scientists discover a formula giving access to the fourth dimension – the  unification of time and space – and, with others, are transported to the abstractly arid Planet X. It presented the fairly cerebral concept of the fourth dimension and time travel in an engrossing way that held the attention of audiences for nearly two months on the fledgling network, this at a time when there were only a relatively small number of television sets in England. I can remember watching the programme and feeling scared as the scientists stared through a screen into a dark experimental chamber where some frightening transformation was taking place.

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GIamt Rat of Sumatra, Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

One of many books speculating on Sherlock Holmes’s confrontation with the Giant Rat of Sumatra

There was one story that Dr John Watson, biographer of Sherlock Holmes, did not reveal, in deference to his friend’s wishes. In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London, Arthur Conan Doyle writes that Holmes has received a letter from Morrison, Morrison and Dodd, a firm of solicitors. The letter says that they have recommended a Mr Ferguson, who has asked for their assistance in a matter concerning vampires, to contact Mr Holmes, adding at the end ‘We have not forgotten your successful action in the case of Matilda Briggs’. Holmes says to Watson, as an aside:

Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

How the ship, the rat, and the Indonesian island are related is left tantalisingly in the air. There are indeed giant rats in Sumatra, and the New York Times told us a lot more about the matter in 1983. Perhaps the creature was an unusually large specimen of the common ship rat (Rattus rattus), that was used in a plot, foiled by Holmes, to spread the bubonic plague through London. Alas we will never know since Watson arranged that his notes on the bizarre story of the giant rat should be held in the vaults of a London bank in perpetuity.

This has not however prevented innumerable books, plays and films being produced taking the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra one step further, including:

  • In Pursuit to Algiers, a 1945 Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Watson tells the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra to an audience on board a ship.
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 Doctor Who TV serial set in Victorian London, in which the hero (dressed in deerstalker, accompanied by a medical doctor with a housekeeper Mrs Hudson) confronts a giant rat in the sewers of London
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2010 novel by Paul D Gilbert, has Holmes investigating the mysterious reappearance of the long-overdue clipper Matilda Briggs.

The largest rat in Sumatra is the Mountain Giant Sunda Rat (Sundamys  infraluteus) which is 9 to 11.5 inches long, excluding the tail, and it weighs 230 to 600 grams, which makes it about twice the size of the common rat. Whether this is the rat to which Holmes was referring (or Doyle was thinking of) we don’t know. But if the public were to hear that rats of this size, carrying a deadly plague, were scuttling around under the streets of London, it would of course induce the greatest panic. And so, it must remain a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

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