Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fish Custard [16]

They were the worst of times, they were the best of times.
They didn't even tell us Doctor Who had been cancelled; just took it away and banged it on the head in the middle of the night. The first we knew was a clip show in 1992 which talked about it in the past tense.
And they lied and lied and lied. Oh how they lied! It is only off air for an extra six months, they said, we want to rest it to make sure the next season is even better they said, we are all sure it has a great future on the BBC they said, maybe some third party will work with the BBC to make the new series.
And then they tantalized us. There's going to be a 30th anniversary story starring Tom Baker and all the surviving Doctors. There will be an American TV series. There will be a movie. There will be a cartoon. (We were prepared to clutch at straws.) We kidded ourself that fan creations like The Stranger or the Virgin novels or the Big Finish CDs or the comic books were the "real" 28th 27th Season. The medium might have changed, but the sacred bloodline had been preserved.
What we actually got in November 1993 was Dimensions in Time a weird skit in which actual monsters and actual Doctors ran around the set of Eastenders. It was possibly intended as a parody, but there weren't any actual jokes. But it finally showed Colin Baker in a scene with the Brigadier, so it must, surely, be canonical? Clutching at straws. Clutching at straws.
But there were bright spots. Well, there was a bright spot. Two years after the abortive Paul McGann pilot, a short sketch called Curse of Fatal Death went out as part of the BBC's annual Comic Relief telethon. There were a lot of toilet jokes so joyless and anatomically mechanistic that they could only have been dreamed up by an eight year old; but there were also some surprisingly involved fan in-jokes. (Jonathan Pryce's pantomime Master falls repeatedly into the disgusting sewers of Terserus: fans with long memories remembered that this was where the hideously deformed Master was discovered in Deadly Assassin.) Rowan Atkinson, being a comedian, played the Doctor entirely straight. He was actually rather good. As we have said before: there is no such thing as a parody of Doctor Who. Curse of Fatal Death is a good deal less stupid than, say, Time and the Rani. And it worked not because the idea of using the Sonic Screwdriver as a sex toy hadn't occurred to absolutely everyone before, but because it was all coming out of the head of someone who loved and cared about Doctor Who: namely, Mr Steven Moffat.
Dimensions in Time had "celebrated" Doctor Who by parading a lot of props and actors in front of us and giving them the opportunity to repeat well-loved catch phrases. Fatal Death didn't contain a single actor or prop from the original series (the Dalek and TARDIS props were DIY efforts borrowed from fans) but it played around with the idea, the essence, of Doctor Who. Lovingly. Reverently. The kind of offensive blasphemy that only the most devout believer can produce. The idea that the Doctor is bored with his travels and wants to settle down and get married is comically incongruous: but it makes a certain amount of logical sense.
"How could I forget the only time travelling companion I've ever had."
"You've had lots of companions."
"The only time travelling companion I've ever had." [*]
The first episode is based almost entirely around the "joke" that the Doctor can escape from any trap, however deadly, by using Time Travel. If he's in an impregnable prison cell, he can, at some point in the future, go back in time and bribe the architect to add an escape tunnel. Literal minded fans complained that, once you have allowed the Doctor to do this, he ceases to be a hero, because any situation, however dangerous, can always be escaped from retrospectively. In fact, it forces the Doctor and the Master to engage in a comic duel of wits:
"When you told me to meet you at Castle Terserus, I simply travelled back in time and bribed the architect. Say hello to the spikes of doom!"
"Say hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort. Naturally I anticipated your journey back in time, and so travelled slightly further back and bribed the architect first."
"Or so you think! Naturally I anticipated your travelling back in time, so I travelled back to an even further point. And I bribed the architect first."
This feels a lot like a comic take on the duel of wits between Dream and Lucifer Choronzon in Sandman ("I am snake, spider-devouring, poison toothed" "I am ox, snake crushing heavy footed.") The Doctor's ability to escape depends purely on his wit an ingenuity. Which means, of course the wit and ingenuity of the writer. But then, it always has. If the Doctor is thrown into a den of lions, he has always been able suddenly to remember that he once spent six months with a circus and learned the art of lion taming. "I went back in time and bribed the architect" only writes this larger, louder, and funnier.
But we had to wait until the end of Season 5 to see Time Travel used like this in the, er, canonical TV series. It is astonishing how much of New Who and New New Who had their dry runs in this silly skit about an alien race that communicates by farting. It was here that we first saw that the Doctor could "fall in love" and still be the Doctor; it was here that it was first suggested that the Doctor and his greatest foe were, in some kinky way, lovers.
"Why do they call you the Master?"
"I'll explain later..."
And it was here that Doctor Who and the Doctor merged, and the Doctor ascended to his role as the most important being in the universe. The sketch really only exists as a pretext for the final scene. For no reason at all, the "twelfth" Doctor gets zapped and killed by special "can't ever regenerate" radiation. This is the final end, the Death of Doctor Who. Someone once said that his final words, "Look after the universe, I've put a lot of work into it" say more about Doctor Who than the entirety of the Paul McGann pilot. They are, of course, quoted by Matt Smith in the Eleventh Hour. The whole cast goes into a eulogy for the Doctor. The Master declares that he will repent and henceforth live a blameless life in memory of his greatest enemy. The Daleks announce that THEY-TOO-WILL-HONOUR-THEIR-MORTAL-FOE. Emma goes into a full blown speech about a Doctorless universe, concluding that "It will never be safe to be scared again." There is no pretence whatsoever that this anything other than a direct appeal to the BBC to bring the series back, that every time Emma says something about "the Doctor", what she is really talking about is Doctor Who. It would not be going to far to say that from this moment Doctor Who re-emerges as a potential BBC television show, as opposed to an intellectual property for BBC Worldwide to flog merchandise. If you felt that way inclined, you could also say that it was the precise moment at which Old Who died.
The resolution, of course, is that the Doctor regenerates in defiance of all physical laws, because "The universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor." Bus-spotters, bless them, grasping their little canons to their little hearts, protested that this meant that the Doctor could never again be in any real danger – because however bad things got "the universe" would save him. Some also ruled the series dead because the Doctor had, in five minutes, burned off all his un-used regenerations. (It is an object of faith among those kinds of fans that the rule that says that the Doctor can only have thirteen lives is the one part of Who mythos which can never be gainsaid.) And indeed, the scene really only worked at a meta-textual level. In the story, the Doctor may be kind, brave and heroic, but he's only one kind, brave, heroic person in a vast universe – one member of one particular race, however advanced and venerable. Only from the point of view of those of us "reading" the story can the the Doctor be the most important thing in the universe. The series has his name on it, and without him, there is no Doctor Who.
But only a hopelessly sad case would use words like meta-textuality in discussing an extended poo-joke. Which may have been part of the point.

[*] Whatever he may later have claimed, at this point Moffat still thought that the classic Doctor had been, how shall we put it, asexual.


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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Fish Custard [15]

I would go a long way to meet Beatrice or Falstaff or Mr. Jonathan Oldbuck or Disraeli's Lord Monmouth. I would not cross the room to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I am.
C.S Lewis
1: "The Lodger" is my favourite episode of Doctor Who since... er...
2: "The Lodger" puts the Doctor alongside an ordinary person and asks us to watch how he interacts with them.
It is surprising that this has not been done before. In fact, the Doctor has relatively rarely been shown alongside ordinary people. One might suppose that the companion ("assistant") exists precisely to be an ordinary person and stand alongside him. In fact, for most of the series' original run, the companions were people as far removed from the audience's experience as the Doctor himself. Yes, there was a sailor and a teacher and an air hostess. But we were usually asked to look at the Doctor through the eyes of seventeenth century highlands warriors, mathematical boy geniuses, alien savages, or female Time Lords who were even cleverer and madder than he was.
Granted New Who has shown us a Doctor who chooses his companions primarily from the ranks of "ordinary" people – an unemployed retail worker, a medical student, an office temp, a kiss-o-gram. But it has also asked us to believe that people have to be very special before the Doctor will invite them on board his TARDIS. Rose, Martha and Donna were all, in different ways, remarkable normal people.
Human Nature, the story to which The Lodger is most frequently compared, showed as the Doctor becoming and ordinary person, interacting with ordinary people, and falling in love with an ordinary woman (much more surprising in Paul Cornell's 1995 novel than in the inferior 2007 TV episode). But the setting for the story was a boys boarding school on the eve of World War I – in retrospect, a curious decision. Wouldn't the question "What if the Doctor were a teacher at my school?" be more interesting than "What if the Doctor were a teacher at my Granpa's school?"
3: The Doctor's ostensible mission is to defeat the alien menace on the top floor of Craig's flat. However, his real mission, the real subject of the story, is to appear normal while living with Craig. We know that he will succeed at the first, and we also know that he is more or less incapable of succeeding at the second. That is why anyone who focuses unduly on the nature of the top-of-the-stairs thing has probably misunderstood the episode.
The threat at the top of the stairs is, however, essential -- to provide a reason for the Doctor's being there in the first place. Since the TARDIS became controllable and the Doctor became defined as "a person who saves the world" there has to be an alien menace wherever the Doctor goes, because the Doctor only goes where there are alien menaces. (This, I have argued, was the one flaw in the otherwise excellent Vincent and the Doctor: a touching little time travel fantasy was hijacked by a gratuitous giant chicken.) But it is also necessary because "saving the world" is what the Doctor does: to be visited in your flat by a Doctor who wasn't trying to save the world would be the same as not being visited by the Doctor at all. The thing at the top of the stairs serves the same purpose as the un-named creature menacing Elton at the beginning of Love and Monsters, or the unseen creature that the Doctor and Martha are chasing (with a crossbow) at the end of Blink. It's a place-holder / signifier for the kind of enemy we know the Doctor frequently faces.
4: This situation produces comedy.
It is a truism that all British situation comedies involve taking people who do not like each other (or who are otherwise poorly matched) and putting them in situations of close proximity which they can't get away from: hospitals, hotels, the army, boarding schools, holiday camps and, of course, marriages. Dad's Army is regarded as the best of all British sit-coms, not because the Second World War is intrinsically funny, but because the Home Guard did in fact force people of all classes and background to interact with each other. The flat share, from The Liver Birds to Men Behaving Badly is therefore a staple of situation comedy: and once we see the Doctor in a flat share situation, we spot that what we are watching is going to be comedy. (The title, The Lodger may make us expect a horror story, but that is largely dissipated in the opening scene.)
The story does, in fact, use many tropes from flat-share comedies – embarrassment and jealousy which occurs when one male room mate brings a girl friend home and the other one won't leave; and the fact that it is intrinsically funny for two adults to share a bathroom because this may also give rise to embarrassment. Most British comedy is based on embarrassment.
However, most of the comedy arise because of the tension between the normal situation (which is abnormal for the Doctor) and the inherent strangeness of the Doctor (which he is trying to disguise). The viewer who is complicit in the Doctor's strange behaviour – we know he does strange things, he's the Doctor – is asked to look at his strangeness through Craig's eyes. This de-familiarizes the Doctor, makes us less complacent about him. We see just how strange he really is. It is funny that the Doctor builds a plot-device-machine in a flat share bedroom out of domestic bits and pieces, because we expect him to do it in a lab, or in the TARDIS. It is funny that he tries to pass this off as a work of modern art, because it's such a poor excuse. The broad comedy of the shower scene depends both on the Doctor's weirdness (he seems to be less embarassable than a normal human) and the fact that we know things about him which Craig does not. From our point of view, saving the earth from an alien menace is more important than getting dressed: from Craig's point of view, the Doctor is an increasingly erratic room-mate who is paying a call on a neighbour and greeting his girl-friend wearing only a towel. To us, the Doctor's big bag of £50 notes signifies that he doesn't know what money is worth and wouldn't care about it even if he did: to Sophie, it signifies that he might be a drug dealer.
5: Although the story makes use of the flat-share format, most of the comedy comes from the personality of the Doctor himself.
New Who has repeatedly asked us to think that the Doctor's consciousness is different from that of a normal human being. He can perceive the movement of the earth through space; he is always aware of all the different outcomes an event could have in different parallel worlds; he can hear the sounds made by suffering beings which are not audible to normal humans. This tended (in line with R.T.D's perpetual use of pointless Christ imagery) to make the Doctor ineffable. Season 5 has made this Doctor-Consciousness much more domestic. The Doctor lives outside of time, so he is surprised and constricted when days all come one after each other: this has the effect of making him bored when he has to watch Van Goff painting a picture. (Many people might think that the capacity to watch a master at work would be one of the best things about owning a Time Machine.) To us, and therefore to Craig, the Doctor is endlessly strange and weird. To the Doctor, what is weird is the whole idea of living in linear time – the one thing which we find so normal that we couldn't even conceive of questioning it. He has been so many places that forgets where he is: he can fit in anywhere, but he belongs nowhere. When asked to play football, he first of all says that he "thinks" he is good at it, then asks if football is "the one with the sticks." But of course, when he starts to play the game, he excels at it.
I have heard at least one fan complain that the Doctor ought not to have been depicted playing football, because it makes him seem less intelligent: the membrane between jocks and geeks must be kept impermeable. This misses the point. English pub soccer is not a serious game. Craig is in no way a sportsman: he spends his time drinking beer and pizza. He has leaflets about art galleries on his notice board, so he's not a complete jock.) The pub football Captain is surely slightly ridiculous in taking the game so seriously. (If the Doctor had been shown in a pub chanting In Ger Land, this might, in deed, have been incongruous.) But it also misses the point that the Doctor's competence is his defining characteristic: if he's imprisoned in handcuffs, it will turn out that he took escapology lessons from Houdini; if he's forced to shoot with a bow, he'll claim to have been a personal friend of Robin Hood's. So of course he shines on the football field.
He is also, incidentally, an excellent cook. This is also a fairly common trope: "Martin" inveigles himself into the Bates household in Brimstone and Treacle because, like the Doctor, he can cook wonderful omlettes We take it for granted that the Doctor will be an expert in everything he turns his mind to.
6: The Doctor spends the episode trying, slightly too hard, to be normal. He isn't very good at it.
The key moment in the episode is when the Doctor, an alien, asks Amy, a woman, what normal blokes do, and she replies "They watch telly, they play football, they do down the pub."
Arguably, the Doctor is trying too hard be normal; trying to live up to Amy's exaggerated idea of male normality. He is not, in the end, very good at it. And very many fans of the asexual bus-spotter type will identify with this. They, too, would like to be normal, but they, too, are unsure what normal people do.
For this reason, the football scene might indeed be regarded as an anti-Whovian betrayal. This is a Doctor who is not like us, a Doctor who, without even trying, wins over the mundanes. (As ever, there is the slight suspicion that scenes like this are really about the programme, not the character. When the girls on the touch-line start to chant "Doc-tor! Doc-tor!" you can almost hear the production team saying "Suck this, Michael Grade! We're mainstream now!")
But in fact, the Doctor carries the day, not because he's normal but because he's the Doctor. The scene in Craig's office is a piece of shameless wish-fulfilment; about a man who goes to work, breaks every rule, is rude to rude customers, prefers to eat custard creams than talk to important clients, but is nevertheless praised by the boss. The very fact that the Doctor is confused – almost detached from the world around him, almost as if he were slightly concussed – makes him successful and universally loved.
"Don't try to be normal, try to be you" says this scene, possibly not quite subtly enough.
7: The Lodger, in the end, deals with very traditional Doctor Who themes in slightly unorthodox ways: far from being a parody, it reminds us of what Doctor Who is really about.
R.T.D, who used to be producer but isn't any more, treated the Doctor as a type of personal growth therapy. Meeting the Doctor makes you a better person. Sarah Jane Smith opines, at the end of every.damn.episode that travelling with the Doctor made her understand that the universe is more beautiful and wonderful than she ever thought possible. Rory called time on this particular cliche in the Vampires of Venice: surely the main thing the Doctor does to companions is inspire them to get killed?
In the real world, you can't do anything if you try, and genius isn't 99% perspiration, whatever John Calvin may have thought. It is, of course, a very good thing to say "If a young man really wants to be a scientist, he doesn't wait for the PhD grant or the ticket to the Galapagos Islands: he starts looking at the insects in his own back yard." But if you aren't terribly, terribly careful, the message of Sarah-Jane can became anti-ambitious. If all the wonders of the universe are right here in Ealing and if having a family is just as big an adventure as saving the universe, then the best way the likes of you can be as exciting as the Doctor's is to pass your exams, have 2.4 children and stay at home – to do, in fact, exactly what you were going to do anyway but apply words like "exciting" and "universe" to it. The message of the ruby slippers is "don't get too uppity, be satisfied with what you've got." [*]
Which is why the sofa scene in "The Lodger" is so very refreshing. The Doctor, by being the Doctor, does change Craig and Sofie life. But he doesn't do this by opening the wonders of the cosmos to them. He does it but challenging Sofie – that if she really wants to work with animals then there is no reason why she shouldn't call up an animal charity and register right now, that if she's unhappy in her current job she doesn't have to stay there.
The one thing we definitely know about the Doctor is that he is the way he is because he made a decision to "leave home" (because, we were told many years ago, he was bored). He says, in effect, that if Craig and Sofie choose to stay on the sofa, they should know why they are staying, and hints that "because we love each other" may be a good reason: but on the other hand, if they are bored, they should get up and leave. This may again hint at Peter Pan's dilemma: that the Doctor, in leaving home, became a wanderer, and the price he pays for that is a life of eternal loneliness. But he wants mortals to make that choice with their eyes open.
So, at its heart, this most unorthodox of Doctor Who stories is about the most perennial of Doctor Who themes. Leave, or stay at home? The TARDIS or Ledworth? A planet of know-everythings do-nothings, or eternal exile? Alien worlds, or staying behind and regretting that staying until the day you die?
8: The Lodger is a perfect vehicle for Matt Smith, and therefore sums up all that is good about this season.
At the end of the football match, the taking-it-too-seriously captain says that next week they will annihilate the opposition. "No violence," replies the Doctor "Do you understand me. Not while I’m around, not today. Not ever. I’m the Doctor. The oncoming storm. You meant beat them in a football match didn’t you?"
This is very similar to the scene in the Sontaran Strategem where the Doctor thinks Donna is leaving him forever. "Thank you, Donna Noble. It's been brilliant. You've... you've saved my life in so many ways. You're – you're just popping home for a visit, that's what you mean." Tennant puts his whole drama-queen heart and soul into the first bit, and then seems humorously embarrassed at having to retract it. Matt's speech is almost off-hand as if something automatic inside him has made him make his "No violence...." speech and another little voice has interrupted him; a change of direction without stopping or breathing. The Eleventh Doctor talks about being confused when events come one after each other in order, but he seems to live only in the present, in the now, in the moment, and part of that is his speaking what is in his head without any internal censor. It is almost impossible to imagine him having an interior life: he shows us his consciousness whenever we're with him. We know him in a way that we don't know any other Doctor. Any other person.
Almost from the beginning, Doctor Who has stood or fallen on the persona of the leading man. Seasons 25 and 26 are really only watch-able because we found the Seventh Doctor so fascinating. The stories are weak or impenetrable, but we kept asking "what is this strange little man going to do next?" If the Doctor ever stops compelling us (in Season 17, for example, when Tom Baker had stopped trying) then there is nothing to do but switch channels and watch Robin of Sherwood instead. This is why the Fifth Doctor's era so consistently falls flat. The stories are, if anything, better than middle and late period Baker, and Peter Davison is a perfectly fine actor. But his Doctor is normal, believable, dull, a clever guy with a space ship. You are quite happy to take your eyes off him. He is never going to surprise you.
But more than ever before, Season 31 is about the characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor. We're watching this man discovering that he is the Doctor, learning to be the Doctor, working out how to the be the Doctor and what it means to be the Doctor and how he is going to play the role of himself in a complicated universe. And though terrible things happen and he is capable of being very very serious and very very grown up, he's having a ball, and so are we.
So this story is practically obligatory. If Season 5 is about the Eleventh Doctor, then we must must must have a story in which any question of alien invasion is more or less put to one side and free play is given to the Eleventh Doctor's consciousness. Sure, we've asked "What would this man do if faced with a very frightened little girl?" and "How would this man deal with a tormented space whale?" and even "How would he deal with an invasion by quite nice aliens who've got quite a good claim to the earth?" But what would he do faced with a kitchen, and a TV, and a glass of wine? How would he fair in an ordinary office job? What what it be like to play football with him? To share a bathroom with him?
According to legend, one Saturday in 1976, Tom Baker, who did not own a television set, became so irritated with the endless debates about TV violence that he knocked on the door of a random house and asked if he could watch The Deadly Assassin with them. He wanted to find out if it had any visible effect on the children watching it. It was a spontaneous act: he didn't have any photos to sign or badges to give away. He said thank you, and left, and realised that when the kids told their friends what happened at school on Monday, there was no chance that their friends would believe them. (This story may even be true. There'd be no point asking Tom. If you remember being the Fourth Doctor, you weren't there.There are also stories of him turning up in school playgrounds in costume to warn off bullies and comfort victims which seem pretty far fetched.) But it ought to be true. By this time, any dividing line between Tom Baker the actor and the Doctor was very, very thin. Watch Seasons 16 and 17 and ask if you are watching a character called the Doctor or an actor called Tom Baker. If the story is true, then the random children weren't visited by a professional performer. They were visited by Doctor Who himself.
What if Doctor Who came to my house?
Season 31 is about the Eleventh Doctor being the Eleventh Doctor. The Lodger is the quintessential Season 31 story. Pure Matt Smith. But Matt Smith has the Doctorness of the Doctor nailed so perfectly that it's pure Doctor Who as well.
The Lodger. My favourite episode of Doctor Who since 1962.

[*]Julia Cameron, an intolerable hippy who writes poems where "Avalon" rhymes with "travel on" gives some excellent advise: you can't necessarily fulfil all your dreams, but you can always take one small step in the right direction. If you wish you could be / had been a cowboy, then there's nothing to stop you picking up the phone right this minute and booking some horse riding lessons.


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Is putting frosted glass in the windows of public swimming pools:

1: A sensible idea: people are often deterred from participating in sport because they are self-conscious about their bodies.

2: Rather an odd idea: if you don't mind other swimmers seeing you in your swimming trunks, why would you be embarrassed if a passer-by happened to look in through the window.

3: An interesting example of how taboos and voyeurism work: it's inherently threatening to be looked at through a window, even if the other side of the window is a public place which anyone could enter.

4: An example of political correctness gone stark raving mad.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Blackbeard's Tea Party

Heavens To Betsy

Blackbeard's Tea Party can, I'm told, often be seen busking the streets of York. Given the silly name, I was rather expecting them to be one of those Pirates of the Caribbean tribute bands who do barn dances in fancy dress. Nothing of the kind. Although there's a nautical theme running through the album, only one of the songs (a rousing version of High Barbary) is explicitly pirate themed. Lively, inventive, Mawkin-ish instrumentals, and a lead singer who acknowledges his debt to Nic Jones. (If you are going to swipe, swipe from the best: I almost preferred this version of "Barrack Street" to Jones' version.) I've been singing "Fathom the Bowl" to myself all day. "A Hundred Years Ago" is an uproariously rousing and silly shanty. I almost wondered if they'd swiped it from Bellowhead or someone of that kind, but it seems to be perfectly traditional. I haven't heard them live, but they are clearly going to be huge. (Mike Harding agrees with me.) This E.P was "recorded by Tim in Tim's bedroom". If you are at all interested in this kind of thing, it has to be worth £5 of your money to encourage them.


June 19th
Folk House, Bristol

Aidan starts making avant garde fiddle noises. Kris starts doing wierd slide guitar noises. "When this surreal soundscape returns to something like western music" explains Martin the squeeze box man "audiences sometimes applaud." Eventually it does, and we do. But I couldn't help thinking that this finale (deliberately, I shouldn't wonder) rather summed up the act. Taking sound along way away from traditional folk music, and even from music, but then bringing it back again.

I am possibly rather too inclined to say that anything which is quite clearly very good indeed, but which I'm clearly not quite "getting" is "a bit like jazz". Richard is more of a jazzman than a folkie, and particularly wanted to come to this gig. He pronounced the "brilliant" and brought the CD.

They start with traditional, or traditional sounding, melodies, and weave long, long riffs around them, at least partly improvised. (There's no sheet music in evidence.) The melody is passed from accordian to guitar to fiddle, getting faster and fast, interweaving more and more complex rhythms. In the end, there's only rhythm. At the end of one of the pieces, Aidan the fiddler said he was out of breath. One wonders what would happen at a venue where there was space to get up and dance. Energetic, physical music. Music as combat sport.

An honourable mention, while I am talking about things I don't understand, to Mamolshn, the support band, doing traditional Jewish folk music with great enthusiasm and clarity. A traditional Hebrew love song; a modern Yiddish piece about cooking; a liturgical song which makes me think that synagogues must be a lot more fun than churches. Never having knowingly heard a Jewish folk song before, I thought they were terrrific.

"You know the gig's going to be good when you'd have paid to hear the support act" quoth Richard.

Ron Kavana

18th June
Lansdown Pub

Towards the end of the evening, Ron Kavana asks how long he was supposed to play for. Until English pub closing time, replies Dan -- which is to say, about half an hour ago. Ron says he'll just do one more. A voice from the audience suggests a Republican song. Ron embarks on another illuminating, nuanced, meandering chat around modern Irish politics. "I'm not a pacifist. I wish I could be..." He finally comes to the end, and sings a long, relaxed "Irish Ways" which seems to sum up what he'd been saying pretty well. There's a feeling of change running through the land/ The church and the right wing / Finally losing their awesome control / We don´t give a damn for your border /And we are the future, so take heed or look to your prayers! It couldn't have been much before midnight when he leaves the stage; he'd been singing and chatting for close to three hours.

The gig was upstairs in a pub; I gather there was a football match of some kind going on down below. Ron says he never uses a set list: he lets one song suggest another, and he's guided by what goes down well with the crowd. "The...gathering" he corrects himself. There are about 20 people in the audience, five of whom are the support act.

He starts to tell the story of giving money to a drunk in Camden Town and finding that it's a person he used to go to school with. "When I first came to London..." he begins, and it turns into the first line of the "The Old Main Drag" and then the second, and then the whole song: unaccompanied, ancient, haunting; one of the most spine-tingling moments I've ever experienced at a live gig. He's been around for ever and seems to have known everyone. Michael Flatley comes to sessions at his local. A delicate, funny "Galway to Graceland" is attributed to "my friend, Richard Thompson". "Both Sides O'The Tweed" has become "Both Sides O'the Boyne", but Dick Gaughan said this was all right.

He used to open for the Pogues, and wrote "Young Ned of the Hill. "I understand that in England Cromwell is a hero because he challenged the monarchy. In Ireland we see him a bit differently...." He says he loved it when English punks in York or Cambridge happily sang along. A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell/ You who raped our Motherland / I hope you're rotting down in hell / For the horrors that you sent / To our misfortunate forefathers / Whom you robbed of their birthright.

He doesn't lecture; he doesn't even exactly tell stories. He talks: about history and politics and music. Like a lot of people on the underdog side, history seems real and living for him. He seems angry about what was done to his ancestors. He won't use the word "famine": there was no famine in Ireland in the 1840s. There was plenty of food, but it was sent to England. The number of Irish who went to America has been exaggerated: most of the boats were turned away, and the real diaspora communities were in Canada. Quite early in the evening he sings "Reconciliation", an allegorical love poem between the north and the south, almost his signature track. Our fight has run its course / Now is the time for healing / So let us all embrace / Sweet reconciliation. He says that in the 1970s and 80s, he could be booed at Irish traditional music festivals for singing it. He fears that the 2016 anniversary could set everything off again.

The support group are Roving Blades, a local choir, who do Copper-ish, churchy acapella, all rounds and sweetly sing cuckoo. Their agonisingly beautiful version of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar doesn't seem to be on the Myspace site: it really ought to be on a CD. When Ron sings Midnight on the Water, they join in the chorus, from the floor, quiet at first, but then almost another spontaneous performance.

He tactfully says that in the USA, most folk concerts happen in private houses. That's what this felt like. A bard stopping off in tavern to sing songs and tell us what he's seen. Magical. When I first started going to folk night, this is what I imagined they'd be like.

I have no idea who won the football.

Tura lura lay; tura lura lay.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Friday, July 02, 2010

Fish Custard (14)

I usually try to translate cultural references as I go along. I know that I have literally several readers in America, and it worries me that they may not know that "the tube" is "the subway" or that "pavement" is another word for "waistcoat".

It's a good exercise. Assumptions, as a very wise man once said, are things that you don't know you are making. Everyone in England instantly understands that "bobby" means something different from "policeman" and that "Tory" means something different from "Conservative", but it's hard to put into words what that difference is. The Union Jack "means" Britain, and the Stars and Stripes "means" America. I am pretty sure that the Union Jack means something different to a British person from what the Stars and Stripes means to an American, but I couldn't articulate what. Nor cold I articulate why I chose to write "British person" rather than "Briton" or "Brit."

So, before moving onto the one in the flat, I need to ask: what is the American cultural equivalent of "Marmite"?

I remember an article in a Doctor Who Appreciation Society fanzine: TARDIS, maybe, or Celestial Whatnot. It was probably by Jeremy Bentham who I don't think ever really concealed the fact that William Hartnell was "his" Doctor. (There was much less history in those days.) He took it for granted – all fandom agreed with him – that what was then "new" Who, the Phillip Hinchcliff seasons were an appalling travesty; nothing at all to do with the Doctor Who we grew up with, and quite open about the fact that it wasn't meant for children any more. (Whenever you see an episode of New Who that you aren't quite convinced by, remind yourself that what you feel is mild compared with the sheer, visceral hatred that the President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society directed at the Deadly Assassin.) But Bentham didn't think that fandom was being quite fair. Granted, seasons 12, 13 and 14 had nothing very much to do with the series we all loved: granted all this horror imagery was more suited to a Hammer Horror movie than Doctor Who, granted Robert Holmes had wrecked the Time Lords irretrievably. But at least Doctor Who was still travelling round the universe in a TARDIS. So fans were faced with a Dilemma. Embrace the new series, or give all your love to the early seasons: Hartnell and Troughton and Pertwee. Well, Hartnell and Troughton. But if we choose to stay behind in the past we may very well regret that staying until etc. etc. etc.

So now it comes: the parting of the ways, the day of choice that we have so long delayed.

Does it bother you that the Thing At The Top of the Stairs made absolutely no sense at all, didn't even pretend to make sense and was in any case the product of a Blue Peter "design a TARDIS interior" competition?

Leave. Leave now. Doctor Who is no longer your show.

And that's fine. It's okay to find it ridiculous when fat ladies who sing when they should be talking claim to be 15 exactly, when they are obviously 53 if they are a day. It is ridiculous. So stay away from the opera.

Your hour will come round again. 40 years from now the widening gyres will bring in a world where Inferno and Ambassadors of Death are the latest word in modernity. Until then, there must be no regrets: just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me etc. etc. etc.

You are so not meant to be looking at the wibbly wobbley timey wimey thing at the top of the stairs. You are so meant to be looking at the Doctor and Craig and Sophie. Well, at Craig.

At me. At me.

What if Dr Who came to my house?


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Fish Custard (13)

"Hi. We're the makers of a TV show about a guy with a Time Machine."
"Ah. You want me to write an adaptation of H.G Wells' The Time Machine."
"No. We produce a children's television series about a man with a Time Machine."
"Oh. What does he do with it?"
"Travels in Time. Goes to the past and the future and meets historical characters and stuff."
"Crazee. Can't see it ever catching on. Why are you telling me about it?"
"We want to commission you to write a story."
"About Time Travel?"
"About people from the present day visiting an historical period. Because you're, like a mainstream writer, who writes period drama. Crossover appeal and all that."
"Any particular historical period you have in mind?"
"No – you choose. The sky's the limit. That's the whole idea. Mainstream writer, thinking outside the box."
"Can I bring historical characters into the present day?"
"Sure. It's, you know, as limitless as your imagination. We generally try to avoid our hero changing historical events too much, though. And he probably shouldn't create established history, either. Saying he caused the Fire of London would probably be a bad idea."
"Or the Fire of Rome?"
"Or the Fire, as you say, of Rome."
"It sounds like a fun, open ended format that will run and run. Here's my idea. Just extemporizing, but could your hero go back in Time and meet Van Goff."
"Van Gock?"
"Van Gow. I'd show all the scenes from the famous paintings – the cornfield, the church, the cafe...and how about this, I'd have the hero bring him some sunflowers, and suggest that he paints them. I'd get lots of irony out of all Van Gock's contemporaries thinking he's a terrible painter, but our hero knows that history will have the last laugh. I'd do a sensitive portrayal of Van Goff's depression, but steer right away from obvious cliched stuff about him chopping off his own ear. I'd probably take the line that he was bipolar. I'd allude to his suicide too. What time does this show go out?"
"Tea-time, but that's okay, we can drop in an 'If You Have Been Affected By' line at the end. Those chaps at the Samaritans get awfully bored if we don't encourage people to phone them, you know."
"But I haven't told you the clever bit yet! The clever bit is that we'll start the story up in an art gallery, doing a Van Goff exhibition. We can show all the paintings, so the young kids will get the references even if they don't know who Van Gock is. And we'll have an art critic doing a tour, talking about Van Gow's life. We'd need a really high class actor to do the cameo."
"I reckon we can get that guy with the tentacles from Pirates of the Caribbean. But we probably wouldn't credit him."
"Great. So he can do some funny dialogue with your hero. Maybe they can compete about who has the best..."
"....Bow tie..."
"Bow tie, great. But then, here's the clever bit. At the end, after the hero has visited Van Gow and got to know him a bit, and Van Gock has even developed a bit of a crush on your hero's beautiful young red-headed assistant, then...and this is the scene I want to write, this is the scene I've wanted to write all my life...your hero puts Van Goff in his Time Machine and takes him back to the present day and shows Van Gock the exhibition. So Van Gow knows that he'll be vindicated and dies happy. He even hears the famous actor lecturing about what a great painter he was, and what a great man he was. And, we'll do this subtly, but wouldn't it be cool if the art critic almost, almost, just out of the corner of his eye, sees his hero for one second, in the flesh! Oh, why I have I wasted my career working within the constraints of narrow social realism! This is the sort of moving, slightly surreal, magical realist material that only the conceit of a Machine that travels through Time can achieve! I hope your series lasts for 46 years and seven months!"
"It sounds excellent. Exactly the sort of thing we're looking for. How does the monster fit in?"
"I'm sorry. I don't quite follow you."
"The monster. We don't feel that a TV series based around a charismatic hero who can visit any historical time period (or, in fact, any place in the universe, but we've played that down, because the punters aren't very interested in stuff set on the planet zog) is exciting enough. So we have a rule that wherever or whenever he goes, and whoever or whatever he meets, there always has to be a monster."
"A monster?"
"That's right, a monster."
"You mean, like a giant chicken or something."
"Exactly. Van Goff, an art critic and a giant chicken."
"You mock me and my muse, Sir. Please do not waste any more of my time. I bid you – adieu."

"What a pseud. I was hoping for something more like Blackadder."


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.