Friday, 20 December 2013

Richard Burton's book: A Christmas Story

Burton and Taylor in 1964, during the filming of The Sandpiper.

The death of Peter O'Toole this week has seen many describe him as 'the last of the hellraisers', sure to be even now raising a glass upstairs (or down?) with Ollie Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. The last of these was of course the first to die, way back in 1984, and sad to say, there's a danger that Richard Burton is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, to recent generations at least. Ask the average person under 30 to name four Richard Burton movies, and they'd struggle, even if they had heard of him. Yes, he's still known as a famous Welshman, a hellraiser, and as part of sentences which contain the words 'Liz Taylor and...', but his actual work, as something which lives on in the public consciousness, is perhaps beginning to fade a bit (with the exception of this, obviously).

A piece of his legacy which has been almost completely forgotten is this book. It was published in 1964, a time when Burton and Taylor were King and Queen of the World, let alone Hollywood. 

The copy of the 1965 Heinemann UK first edition of the book in stock at Withnail Books. It was published by William Morrow in the USA the previous year.
The Withnail copy does not have a dustjacket alas, but here's what one looks like.

A Christmas Story is a slim volume, barely over 30 pages, and the 'story' is essentially an autobiographical fragment. It's Christmas Eve, and the eight year-old Rich is taken out of the house by his Uncle 'Mad Dan' to go and sing with the miners round the bonfire, because his sister is upstairs gravely ill... or is she? Perhaps young Rich will be getting an unexpected 'prezzy-wezzy'...




Given the subject matter, it's impossible not to think of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales (which you can hear read by the author in full here). Burton knows the comparisons are inevitable, and also that he's not going to 'win', and so wisely namechecks Thomas in his first sentence: "There were not many white Christmases in our part of Wales in my childhood – perhaps only one or two – but Christmas cards and Dickens and Dylan Thomas and wishful memory have turned them all into white."

Having said that, what follows is rather wonderfully written. Here's an excerpt:

"Can I go home now, Mad Dan?"
"Shut your bloody trap and listen," he said, "or I'll have you apprenticed to a haberdasher."
This was a fate worse than death for a miner's son. There was, you understand, the ambition for the walk of the miners in corduroy trousers, with yorks under the knees to stop the loose coal running down into your boots and rats from running up inside your trousers and biting your belly (or worse), and the lamp in the cap on the head, and the bandy, muscle-bound strut of the lords of the coalface."


'The Lords of the Coalface'. Illustration by Lydia Fruhauf.


It helps of course to imagine the words read by Burton himself, in that dark brown voice of his. The initial printing of the UK edition came with a belly band proclaiming: 'The book to be read by Richard Burton on Christmas Day on the BBC', which would have been Christmas 1965. The recording still exists (its internal BBC reference number, should you need it, is WAC ref. Rcont12 ART file 2) but it never got a commercial release as far as I can tell, and hasn't made its way onto the web, sadly. Indeed, the book itself, though it got a new edition in the late 80s with an Introduction by Burton's widow Sally, is now out of print.

Mind you, the same can be said (amazingly, given the rapturous reviews they got and his continuing high profile) of Peter O'Toole's two volumes of non-ghosted autobiography, Loitering With Intent, and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice, not to mention Richard Harris's book of bonkers (but marvellous) poetry, I, In The Membership Of My Days. There's also Burton's second (and last) book, Meeting Mrs Jenkins, another slim volume reprinting an article which originally appeared in Vogue, about meeting and wooing Liz Taylor. That one is the scarcest of the lot, and will cost you north of $100 for a copy, or indeed $1500 for one signed by both of them. It's got a cracking cover, using a photo taken by the proud husband himself.





It's time to bring all these works back into print... though I bet only an omnibus edition of O'Toole's books is a realistic possibility.

Anyway. Happy Christmas to everyone from Withnail Books, and many thanks for all the support in the first few months, from customers in the shop, to long-distance readers of the blog or Facebook page.

As a festive treat, here's an entire episode of Lee Major's second-finest hour, The Fall Guy, complete with special guest star, playing himself – yup – Richard Burton...





Thursday, 12 December 2013

Gremlins and Nuclear War: Why has Roald Dahl's first adult novel Sometime Never been kept out of print for 60 years?





These days Roald Dahl is known by all as a children’s author, and remembered by many for his ‘adult’ fiction, the dark, twisted short stories published in various collections over the years, many of which were famously adapted for TV as the Tales of the Unexpected. Particular fans of the latter will perhaps have tracked down what its current synopsis on Amazon describes as ‘Dahl’s first-ever novel’: My Uncle Oswald, a ribald romp from 1979, which acts as a feature-length prequel for the titular character, dubbed ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, introduced in two previous short stories (‘The Visitor’ and ‘Bitch’ from the collection Switch Bitch). It’s great fun, but doesn’t read like Dahl was making a serious attempt to write ‘a novel’; it comes across more like a short story that outgrew its wordcount, as indeed it was: he later admitted that his original commission, a request from Playboy for a new Oswald tale, “refused to stop” and grew into a book.


The thing is (and now we’re finally getting to the point of this post), My Uncle Oswald is not Dahl’s ‘first-ever novel’. That distinction belongs to a book called Some Time Never, published by Scribners in the US in 1948, with a UK edition (confusingly titled Sometime Never) from Collins the following year. It has never been reprinted. You’ll search in vain for a mention of it on roalddahl.com. Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell you much. Copies are hard to come by: of the few examples on ABE at present, you’ll have to pay well into three figures for one with a decent dustjacket, and the UK edition appears to be really scarce, with only two copies currently for sale (it’s entirely possible that the print run for that edition was only in the hundreds). Even a reading copy will cost you a few notes, and that’s what I finally managed to snap up a while back: a jacketless ex-library copy of the UK edition, which I bought the day it was listed on ABE, thanks to my wants list alert. I’d been wanting to read this apparently ‘suppressed’ work by one of my favourite writers for years!



So what’s it all about? I’ll let the flap copy from the US edition sum it up, as it actually tells pretty much the whole plot in prĂ©cis:

Some Time Never is a blend of superbly written realism and outrageous fantasy, with an almost Swiftian quality in its savage wit and subtle humor.

It is the story of the hitherto little-known Gremlins. It is moreover a piercing commentary on Man and the qualities in Man which are leading him to his destruction.

The Gremlins were the original rulers of the earth in ages past, but with the advent of Man and the spread of his obnoxious activities to every part of the globe, the Gremlins were forced underground to a subterranean network of tunnels. Out for revenge and for the restoration of their former dominant position in the world’s affairs, the Gremlins bent every effort to plotting Man’s annihilation.

During the Battle of Britain these odd and menacing creatures began an offensive against pilots in an effort to hasten the eradication of the human race. From the experiences of three Royal Air Force pilots, Stuffy, Peternip and Progboot, we get an appalling picture of Gremlin activities, and through the eyes of the Gremlins themselves we get a portrait of Man that is far from flattering.

After the Battle of Britain the Gremlins became convinced that Man would effect his own self-destruction without any help from them – so they ceased their ingenious offensive and retired underground to wait. The atom bomb appeared, more devastating weapons followed, World War III took a terrible toll the world over and finally World War IV finished the job. The Gremlins emerged from their underground tunnels and took over world in which all human life and all works of Man had been destroyed.

The theme of this book is a serious one. Mr Dahl’s implications are the most serious a writer could suggest. Ironic and witty, Some Time Never will amuse you, even give you you a few hearty laughs – but it will also make you think.

As someone who’s written a few blurbs myself, I can tell you that the above is a valiant attempt to summarize/'sell to a general readership’ a book that vehemently resists such things. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book – far from it.




By 1948 Dahl had already had two books published: 1943 saw The Gremlins, an illustrated children’s story, and his first collection of adult short stories, Over to You: 10 stories of flyers and flying came out in 1946. Some Time Never is in some ways a combined offshoot of both: taking the whimsical characters of the former and putting them into the adult style of the latter. (The story of The Gremlins book, and the ultimately abandoned Walt Disney movie version of it, need not detain us here, but thanks to the scene-setting Introduction in Dark Horse’s still in print 2006 edition of that previously impossible-to-find-for-less-than-$300 book, it is now easily accessible.)

So why is Some Time Never out print? Why has it seemingly been airbrushed from the Dahl timeline? Does it hang together as a novel? No, in all honesty, it doesn’t. This is a young writer writing his ‘important first novel’ and he’s trying really hard, but it doesn’t entirely work. Mind you, his chosen theme is about as big as you can get: the destruction of mankind in a nuclear holocaust. Dahl started writing the book in 1946, and even in 1948 it was still one of the first (possibly the first?) novels published post-Hiroshima to address that looming possibility. There is some very powerful writing though, especially in the chapter after the bomb has hit London. Stuffy survives the initial blast, and emerges from a tube station to wander the ruined streets in a daze:

He walked around a double-decker bus which was standing upright in the middle of the road, and as he went past it he saw through the open glassless windows that the bus was full of people, all sitting in their places, silent, immobile, as though they were waiting for the bus to start again. But their faces were scorched and seared and half-melted and all of them had had their hats blown off their heads so that they sat there bald-headed, scorch-skinned, grotesque, but very upright in their seats. Up in front, the black-faced driver was still sitting with his hands resting on the wheel, looking straight in front of him though the empty sockets of his eyes.

It’s a long way from the BFG doing a whizzpopper in front of the Queen, isn’t it?

And yet, the book also deals in fascinated detail with the green bowler hat-wearing Gremlins and their love of snozzberries (a fruit later revived for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so it’s still very much proto-Dahl.

At the risk of making this already long post stupidly long, I won’t attempt more lit crit here, though I will agree with Donald Sturrock (whose excellent authorised biography of Dahl, Storyteller, covers the novel in commendable detail) that Some Time Never is “extraordinary, undervalued and visionary”.

Its author evidently thought otherwise. Writing the “bastard book” was a long and wearing process, and though Dahl had high hopes for it, Scribner’s respected editor Maxwell Perkins (who had discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald) died before he’d had a chance to read it, it didn’t get any illustrations (Dahl had wanted Mervyn Peake), the reviews were lukewarm and the sales were negligible. Sturrock recounts how Dahl refused a publisher’s request to print a paperback edition after his later success: “Why in God’s world anybody should want to paperback that ghastly book I don’t know.” A signed copy of the US hardback currently for sale contains a typed note dated 1973 from Dahl to the recipient that says, ''I have had a few of them lying around for a long time and it seems to be the one book of mine that nobody wants. I am not sure I blame them.'' He later told a fan who’d written asking where she could get a copy that “It’s not worth reading.” 

I’d have to disagree with Mr Dahl: it’s well worth tracking down. It’s a shame that it will probably never be reprinted, but then why would the massive Dahl industry machine bother with bringing back a flawed, untypical and adult novel just to potentially sell a few thousand copies, and get a few eyebrow-raised reviews in the broadsheets, especially if Dahl himself had ended up being embarrassed by it? Better to protect the brand. That’s perfectly understandable, but still a shame. What’s more, Sturrock’s biography reveals the existence of several unpublished short stories in the author’s files, and indeed the manuscript of something called Fifty Thousand Frogskins, a novel that Dahl wrote directly after Some Time Never, which never got properly published at all…



Meanwhile, that copy of the UK edition has now joined the shelves at Withnail Books, should anyone be interested...

Saturday, 7 December 2013

If You're A Fan Of The Lighthouses Of The US Eastern Seaboard, You're In Luck...

Just a quick post this time, to show off this new arrival: a large old album full of handmade postcards (handmade in that they appear to be photos from another publication stuck onto blank cards). 

E.M.W., whoever he was, was evidently a big lighthouse fan. After a few pages of Lightvessels (ships which act as lighthouses), there is page after page of lighthouse photos, all, as far as I can tell, from the Eastern coast of the US; lots of wonderful names, like 'Seven Foot Knoll', 'Greenbury Point Shoal', 'Stingray Point' and 'Wolf Trap'. There's no Amity Island, alas.










Thursday, 28 November 2013

Jack The Ripper: Has Withnail's Creator Bruce Robinson Really Discovered Proof Of His Identity, By Mistake?

Bruce Robinson (centre). Photo by Murray Close. www.murrayclose.com

It'll come as no big surprise that round these parts we're interested in whatever Bruce Robinson, best known as the writer and director of Withnail and I, is up to. For many years, the answer has been, at least in public, 'not much'. He resurfaced in 2011 with The Rum Diary, a film of Hunter S. Thompson's novel which its producer/star Johnny Depp persuaded Bruce to adapt and direct, and one suspects he still works as an uncredited script doctor on various films, but the lion's share of his time for the past decade and more has been taken up with a massive research project.


Bruce Robinson has discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper, and he's been busy writing the Ripper book to end all Ripper books.


As long ago as 2003, he was telling the Daily Express: "The 'mystery' is complete rubbish. They knew and I know exactly who the killer was. By 1892 they knew his name unequivocally. My book has taken four years and it will burst the mystery open once and for all. It's the dirtiest political story I've ever come across. The whole thing is a juggernaut of lies. The mystery is a complete invention – there isn't one. When my book comes out people will either think I'm completely barmy or be appalled at how craven and cynical people could be." 


Fast forward to 2011, and Robinson started mentioning the project in interviews to tie in with the release of The Rum Diary, including this one: "I’ve been working for 14 years on the same book, about the Whitechapel murderer, which is kind of an obsessive passion of mine at the moment. But the problem is, I spent half a million pounds on the research of this book and it’s unbelievably expensive because you can’t just walk into the Metropolitan Police and say: “Okay, get it all out, come on I want to see it…” Because all of those, we remember very well the dodgy dossier over Iraq… well, exactly the same thing applies to Jack the Ripper, all the Metropolitan Police files are all completely faked, they’re all complete bollocks all of them, so it’s a difficult area to be working in. But it’ll take me another two years to finish that."

Around the same time, Will Self visited Robinson's home, and reported that an entire converted barn had been given over to a 'Ripper Research Unit', "complete with groaning shelves, bursting filing cabinets and a brace of desks." Though the manuscript had reached 800 pages, Bruce was not ready to publish: "I need it locked down. I don’t want there to be any doubts expressed at all, and for that I need to do more research — and that costs."

Since then, there has been no sign of the book. The nearest thing to an announced publication date was this mention in his Random House author bio here: 'For a dozen years he's been working on a history of the Whitechapel Murders which he hopes to publish in 2013 to coincide with the centenary of 'Jack the Ripper's' death...'

Evidently, his hopes to publish in 2013 have been dashed, unless there's a Morrissey-style last-minute reveal to come in the next month. Somehow I doubt it. But wait, that little mention is actually a very tantalising sentence: 'to coincide with the centenary of Jack the Ripper's death'. The murders took place in 1888, and of course the Ripper has never been identified... but Bruce's candidate evidently lived on until 1913.

So who is it, who has Bruce Robinson unmasked, and how did a jobbing film writer/director get caught up in Ripperology in the first place?

From what I can piece together, the chronology goes something like this. 

Back in 1993, The Diary of Jack the Ripper was published, in a flurry of worldwide publicity. The story of the diary, purported to be by Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick, its discovery, and the vehement arguments about its veracity which ensued could (and have) take up several books. The bottom line is that even the Ripperologists who think it's a fake don't believe the guy who 'discovered' it, and later claimed he wrote it, actually had anything to do with its creation, but they don't have an answer for who did fake it. (It's a long and tortuous tale, brilliantly told in this book.)

But back to Bruce Robinson. UK copies of The Diary of Jack the Ripper are prefaced by this quote:

"If this Diary is a modern forgery — which I am sure that it is not — and if I were the faker, then I would consider it to have been the summit of my literary achievement." — Bruce Robinson, Oscar nominee and scriptwriter of The Killing Fields and Withnail and I.

So, Bruce was evidently impressed by the diary (though you'll note that he leaves open the possibility that it is an old forgery), enough to lend his name to a nice puff quote. Not surprising then that he was soon reportedly attached to a film version of the book, called Battlecrease (the name of Maybrick's Liverpool house). The diary movie was hot property for a while, and there was talk of Anthony Hopkins playing Maybrick, but after several years in development, the Johnny Depp Ripper film From Hell came along, and killed off any chance Battlecrease had of reaching the screen.

By this time however, we are to assume, Robinson had uncovered something in his research for the film which he wanted to continue pursuing, even if it was going to take him a decade or more, not to mention half a million quid of his own money.

Working with the veteran Ripper writer Keith Skinner, his attention turned (according to a poster on the thread here) to James Maybrick's brother, Michael, a popular singer and composer of the day who also went by the name Stephen Adams. In 1893, at the peak of his success, Michael married his housekeeper, and retired to the Isle of Wight. "By 1892 they knew his name unequivocally," Robinson said. Hmmm. Add in the facts that Michael was a very high-up Freemason, and that he died in 1913 (when Robinson has already revealed his candidate died) then it's hardly proof if proof be need be... but could this be the face of Jack the Ripper?





Here's hoping that one day soon, Bruce Robinson's book is finally published. Whatever his conclusions, one thing's for certain: it'll be brilliantly written. It's also going to be very, very long. In 2008, I attended a recording of Radio 4's The Reunion, celebrating Withnail, at the NFT. Afterwards, I took the opportunity to get the great man's autograph, and ask him when we were going to see his Jack the Ripper magnum opus. "Few more years yet," he said with a big grin, holding up his thumb and forefinger several inches apart. "The fucker's this thick!"

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2014:
Well, a book called The Name of the Ripper: One Man's Obsessive Quest to Discover the Identity of History's Most Notorious Serial Killer has appeared for preorder on Amazon. It's coming out in April 2015. Bated breath doesn't cover it.


UPDATE FEBRUARY 2015:
No doubt to avoid confusion with the similarly titled 2014 release Naming Jack the Ripper, Robinson's book appears to have undergone a name-change to They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. The publication date has also slipped to September 2015...

UPDATE JUNE 2015:

Confirmation that Michael Maybrick *is* Robinson's suspect: read more here.

... and the blurb for the book has been released. It just makes me even more intrigued... 

The iconoclastic writer and director of the revered classic Withnail & I—"The funniest British film of all time" (Esquire)—returns to London in a decade-long examination of the most provocative murder investigation in British history, and finally solves the identity of the killer known as "Jack the Ripper."

In a literary high-wire act reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Errol Morris, Bruce Robinson offers a radical reinterpretation of Jack the Ripper, contending that he was not the madman of common legend, but the vile manifestation of the Victorian Age's moral bankruptcy.

In exploring the case of Jack the Ripper, Robison goes beyond the who that has obsessed countless others and focuses on the why. He asserts that any "gentlemen" that walked above the fetid gutters of London, the nineteenth century's most depraved city, often harbored proclivities both violent and taboo—yearnings that went entirely unpunished, especially if he also bore royal connections. The story of Jack the Ripper hinges on accounts that were printed and distributed throughout history by the same murderous miscreants who frequented the East End of her Majesty's London, wiping the fetid muck from their boots when they once again reached the marble floors of society's finest homes.

Supported by primary sources and illustrated with 75 to 100 black and white photographs, this breathtaking work of cultural history dismisses the theories of previous "Ripperologists." A Robinson persuasively makes clear with his unique brilliance, The Ripper was far from a poor resident of Whitechapel . . . he was a way of life.


And here's another version from the Harper UK site...


For over a hundred years, ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’ has been a source of unparalleled fascination and horror, spawning an army of obsessive theorists, and endless volumes purporting finally to reveal the identity of the brutal murderer who terrorised Victorian England.

But what if there was never really any ‘mystery’ at all? What if the Ripper was always hiding in plain sight, deliberately leaving a trail of clues to his identity for anyone who cared to look, while cynically mocking those who were supposedly attempting to bring him to justice?

In THEY ALL LOVE JACK, the award-winning film director and screenwriter Bruce Robinson exposes the cover-up that enabled one of history’s most notorious serial killers to remain at large. More than twelve years in the writing, this is much more than a radical reinterpretation of the Jack the Ripper legend, and an enthralling hunt for the killer. A literary high-wire act reminiscent of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson, it is an expressionistic journey through the cesspools of late-Victorian society, a phantasmagoria of highly placed villains, hypocrites and institutionalised corruption.

Polemic, forensic investigation, panoramic portrait of an age, underpinned by deep scholarship and delivered in Robinson’s inimitably vivid and scabrous prose, THEY ALL LOVE JACK is an absolutely riveting and unique book, demolishing the theories of generations of self-appointed experts – the so-called ‘Ripperologists’ – to make clear, at last, who really did it; and more importantly, how he managed to get away with it for so long.


Friday, 22 November 2013

I Was in Doctor Who Once: The Thrilling Conclusion!

Not pictured: me. But I was nearby. Honest.


Last week, to kick off the 50th anniversary celebrations with some choice Whomobilia on eBay (and also to, well, show off a bit) I posted the first episode of my l e n g t h y account of being an extra for a day in Doctor Who. Part one is here. And now, the conclusion...

PART TWO


After mere hours of hanging about, suddenly, The Doctor walked in. “Hello,” he said, and disappeared into the green room. Mickey and Rose’s Mum soon followed. By this time, a few extras had begun to migrate into the green room as well, so I decided that now was definitely the moment to go in there too. Just to get some water, you understand. Tennant was now dressed in his brand new Doctor costume (pictures had been released to the press just a couple of days before): a baggy pinstripe suit, blue shirt and paisley tie, scuffed white trainers and a long, straight brown coat. He took off the coat, put it down on a table and began talking to the actress who plays Rose’s Mum (who evidently doesn’t actually do much acting when she’s onscreen).

“I’ve just read the script to episode two.”
“Oooh! What’s it like?”
“Brilliant. Though it would be better if you were in it, of course.”
“Oooh, stop it you!”
“It’s amazing. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s insanely ambitious. It’s got Queen Victoria, werewolves, ninja monks flying through the air…”

At that moment, just as I was hoovering up this solid gold spoiler material, the two mothers came over to ask for an autograph. This is very bad form if you are an extra, but this was special. This was The Doctor. And it was for their kids. Tennant didn’t mind in the slightest (though he had only been playing the part for two days, so hadn’t been asked much yet I suppose), and happily signed away with the usual “Oh, Emily’s my niece’s name,” et cetera. I was determined not to ask for one myself, but I couldn’t resist the chance to touch the hem of his garment, as it were.

So I went over, and actually did touch the hem of his garment.

“So this is the famous new coat,” I said, idiotically. “I just want to touch it.” [What? What did I say? Idiot!] I fingered the collar. “Oooh, is that suede?” By this time, Tennant was looking at me with an ever so slightly alarmed look on his face.

“It’s sort of nearly moleskin,” he said.

I very nearly replied that I’d read somewhere that, on being offered the role, he’d insisted that he simply had to have a long coat. But that ‘somewhere’, as he and I both would have known full well, was the last issue of Doctor Who Magazine, and I didn’t want to unsettle the poor man any further.

Actually, he probably didn’t think he was being stalked. David Tennant is, and always has been since he was a little kid, ‘one of us’ — a huge Doctor Who fan, who buys the magazine (well, gets it sent to him for free now, I imagine), and would be just as interested in the new Doctor’s costume even if he wasn’t wearing it himself.

Tennant and I exchanged final looks. Mine was trying to convey the relaxed insouciance of a professional who has just had a brief exchange with another in his field, whilst also making clear ‘I’m not a nutter, honest!’ His face was a rather charming mix of a professional being polite with a fan, whilst also admitting ‘Yes I know, I’m bloody Doctor Who! I can’t believe it myself!’

I’m going to like this one even better than Eccleston, I thought.

The actors were soon called away, and we settled down for our final bit of hanging around in the hot hallway. Finally, a 2nd AD appeared. (Or it might have been a 3rd. It’s hard to tell just by looking at them.) “Right, we’re nearly ready. It’s a Christmas scene. The director wants it to look like a Christmas card. It’s snowing, there’s a meteor storm in the sky, it’s Christmas day, it’s all a bit weird and you’re happy! It’s not real snow though. Well, obviously it’s not real snow, but it’s not real snow in the story either. But you don’t know that. OK. Does that make sense?” (Hey, I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was four. No worries.)

To the set. This was it! Or would be, after another half an hour of waiting about. The condom had been removed from the Tardis, and the precinct had been covered in fake snow. Paper pulp and soap, I’m told. It looked very convincing. Fairy lights twinkled in the windows of the flats above. I watched the cast rehearsing. This was going to be, as I’d thought, a complex boom/dolly shot, swooping down from on high as the Doctor, Rose, Mickey, Rose’s Mum and a young couple of guest stars walked out towards the Tardis, zooming in for quite a bit of dialogue, and then up and away as the Doctor and Rose gazed into the sky. This has got to be the last scene of the episode, where the new Doctor invites Rose to continue travelling with him, I thought. And did say, this time. It was midnight by now and I didn’t care. The geek was out of the closet!

I realised that the little tent over to one side behind the camera was where the director James Hawes and his monitors lived. (Earlier, I’d also recognised the producer, Phil Collinson, but Russell T. Davies didn’t seem to be about.) He’d obviously told the 1st AD (through the intercom that everyone was hooked up to) that he was now ready for a rehearsal including ‘Background’. Eleven hours after arriving, it was time to start work.

“You look like a nice couple,” the 1st AD said to me and Elaine. The very pretty Elaine was one of the aforementioned mothers, and I had earlier learned that her husband was currently in Malta, blowing up hotel rooms for Steven Spielberg (he’s a special effects technician).

“So, it’s Christmas. He’s just proposed,” the 1st said.
“Blimey, really? I know he kissed Rose in the last episode of season one, but that’s going a bit far isn’t it, I mean, the fans will be furious…”
“Not the Doctor you pillock, you!” said the 1st. “Your little character. You’ve just proposed to Elaine here and it’s all happy and fun. You can have a little cuddle and play in the snow.”
“Ah, right.” Time to put the geek back in the closet.

The other extras got their instructions. Pretty basic stuff — walk there, look up, then walk over there’ — but with ten of us wandering about, plus six cast members, it was going to be quite busy, and Mr Hawes obviously wanted it to look just right. It took a few rehearsals. The first time, we were all a bit enthusiastic, running up to each other and gesticulating in amazement at the sky. If it had been Doctor Who: The Musical and this was the climactic number ‘We’re Watching the Skies!’ this would have been fine. The intercom crackled. “David, Billie, that was good, but we’re going to go for another rehearsal. The background needs some work.” No gesticulating then. In fact, after a few more practice goes, Hawes decided that less was more, and a couple of the extras were told their services were no longer required. All that time (and money: about £140 each for a day that ends after midnight), for nothing, because the director thinks the shot looks a little full. But he’s the director, and he can do what he wants. I was beginning to see how everyone on set works together towards one goal: giving the director the elements he needs, from scenery (including us, the moving scenery) to lighting, from cameras in the right place, to lead actors who know their lines. Once he has those elements in place, the director can tweak them, change them around a bit, and finally… “OK, we’re going for a take.”

Up on the cherry-picker, the snow machine whirred into action. Elaine and I were still in the shot. By now we had decided that we were on our way home from a party, slightly drunk and very much in love, though I hadn’t necessarily just proposed.

We must have done ten or twelve takes over the next hour or so. First came the wide angle shot, with the camera and its plucky operator swinging up and down on the boom. Then two cameras were reset for two sets of close-ups, from slightly different angles. It was quite a long scene, about two minutes, and hearing the dialogue, I realised it was definitely the end of the episode.

Some takes were abandoned when the snow was blown away by the wind before it had a chance to fall prettily to the ground. Another was cut short when Tennant realised he had a big soapy ‘snow’ bubble on the end of his nose. Elaine and I had got our bit down pat though, and were quite happy to “go again” as many times as they needed.

We had a feeling it was going to be the final take. When it ended, James Hawes emerged from his tent and simply said “Wonderful.”

———

The Doctor and friends walk out of the flat, and across the precinct towards the Tardis. It’s Christmas day, the Doctor has just saved the world again, and it’s snowing. Plus, there’s an amazing looking meteor storm in the sky. Mickey, Rose and her Mum are excited. (So are a couple who walk past them. The man stops and gazes up at the sky, rubbing his chin in wonderment. But enough about them.)

The Doctor looks up. “Must be the ship breaking up in the atmosphere. This isn’t snow, it’s ash,” he says casually.

By now, the Doctor’s little group has reached the Tardis (and the happy couple have walked off, still gazing at the sky. No but really, enough about them). The Doctor is getting ready to say goodbye. Rose’s Mum is worried about her daughter leaving her yet again to gallivant around time and space.

“You go looking for trouble, you do,” she says.
“Trouble’s just the bits in between!” scoffs the Doctor. “There’s worlds, creatures all sorts that I haven’t seen yet. Not with these eyes.” He turns back to Rose, and holds out his hand. “You coming?” She looks unsure. He wiggles his fingers. Rose smiles and takes his hand.
“Where we going first then?”
The Doctor points up at the starry sky. “That one - no, wait… that one.”
“That one,” says Rose softly.
“And you know what Rose? It’s going to be fantastic.”

———

I had to wait six months to see if I actually ended up on screen... but I did, for the aforementioned very nearly thirteen and a half seconds. I was right. It was the last scene of the episode. That's me top right... 






Thanks to Andy for the screengrabs, which are among my most treasured possessions...



Friday, 15 November 2013

Happy Birthday, Doctor



I can't remember Doctor Who not being in my life. I mean this quite literally: pretty much my earliest memory, and certainly my earliest TV-watching memory, is of being terrified by the Zygons. That was when I was 4 (just) in August 1975, and since then I have read, watched, discussed at length and collected all things Who. I was even in it once.

As a long term fan, who weathered the wilderness years of public indifference/ridicule when it was off the air (or worse, still on the air but frankly a bit rubbish), it's great to see younger visitors to Withnail Books immediately point out the shop's Tardis to their parents.




Below it there's a shelf of Who-related books, everything from old annuals to a copy of Tom Baker's poetry collection 'Never Wear Your Wellies in the House', but there's also a copy of this, the first Doctor Who book I ever read to myself:




It's no exaggeration to say that Terrance Dicks taught me to read as much as any teacher. I could write a long post just about the Doctor Who Target books of the 70s and 80s, but luckily this one by the estimable Nick Jones over at the excellent Existential Ennui has done it for me. What he said.

There's a lot of excitement surrounding the show's 50th anniversary, with a special episode on November 23rd (featuring multiple Doctors, plus, for the first time since 1975, the return of the Zygons!). A prelude to it, featuring the unexpected return of a certain actor, went live yesterday and melted the internet.

Withnail Books has listed some choice Whomobilia on eBay to celebrate, all with starting prices of £19.63. (See what I did there?)

And yes, I was in an episode once. I was onscreen for very nearly thirteen and a half seconds. As you can imagine, finding myself standing on set next to the Tardis was rather exciting. This rather long account, written the day after filming, has only been in 'private circulation' until now (and probably should have stayed that way), but in case anyone is interested, it begins below, with the final instalment next week. Well, you've got to have a cliffhanger....

Wednesday, 27th July 2005

My childhood hero spoke to me last night. “It’s sort of nearly moleskin,” he said. As he himself would say, I’ll explain later. To begin at the beginning. It’s a Thursday morning, and an iChat bubble appears on my computer screen with a friendly little pop. It’s Big Rob, a friend who works for an extras casting agency. Pop, went Big Rob. “Got something you might be interested in.” “What?” Pop. Pop. “Do you want to be an extra for a day?” “What is it?” Pop. The next pop was followed by possibly the most exciting sentence I have ever read. “Doctor Who Christmas Special: do you want to be an alien-possessed zombie, or a passer by?” As you can imagine, there was a brief pause, before my brain tried to do several things at once:
i) restrain the urge to gleefully shout ‘I’m going to be in Doctor Who!’ to my workmates
ii) make me sit down again 
iii) see i)
iv) type ‘alien-possessed zombie, definitely.’

After a flurry of activity — measurements, photographs, booking a day’s holiday — it was set: I was to report to the location in Camberwell at 1.30pm the following Wednesday, 27 July. I was officially Zombie no. 9. They wouldn’t be shooting scenes with The Doctor himself that day, sadly, but hey: it was still dream-come-true time. I was going to be a Doctor Who monster!

“Right. Who have we got who’s in pyjamas, but not a zombie?” asked the 2nd Assistant Director. No one laughed. On the set of Doctor Who, this is a perfectly reasonable question. I’d arrived at the unit base early (it was only a fifteen minute drive from home), to find the usual row of trailers, wires and converted double-decker busses for eating and generally hanging about in. The weather was rainy and miserable. Burly men in baseball caps were everywhere, lugging stuff about and calling each other ‘mate’. A catering van wafted bacon smells. I was quickly ushered through costume and make-up, which consisted of the 1st AD approving the dressing gown and slippers I’d brought from home as instructed, and a make-up lady saying I was OK without any make-up at all. I guess zombies don’t have to look good. Though to be fair, I wasn’t a back-from-the-dead zombie. I was apparently a normal bloke, who’d been possessed in the middle of the night (hence the slippers) by the evil alien Sycorax, who could control anyone with type A blood. Okaaay.

Us twenty or so lowly extras grabbed some ‘breakfast’ (this was to be a night shoot, with ‘lunch’ at 7.30pm) and immediately got down to some serious hanging about. This lasted about four hours, enough time for me to get to know a few of them. Several evidently knew each other well from previous jobs, and there was incessant talk of past glories, from ‘Potter’ and Batman Begins to Holby City and EastEnders. A recent incident on the set of Basic Instinct 2 was discussed at length, in which two extras apparently got into a physical fight when one accused the other of insulting Sharon Stone by not handing the star some loo paper when she had requested it from an adjacent stall. Or something. My fellow extras included a man in a dapper silk dressing gown who said he had played several monsters in Doctor Who back in the 1970s (I was keeping my Who geek credentials very much undercover, so I managed to not ask him which ones. It was bloody hard, but I did it). Then there was a woman who looked and sounded exactly like Dawn French in those French and Saunders extras sketches. A sample quote from her: “I hope they don’t have custard at lunch. I can’t eat other people’s custard. Only my own custard.” I also met Sergio. He seemed very popular with the female extras: I was told he gave excellent neck massages. Anything to pass the time I suppose…

Eventually we were minibussed a few minutes away to the location proper, a housing estate which I recognised from the first season as being where Rose’s Mum lived. Stepping out of the bus in my dressing gown, I realised I was grinning like a twat. I had just caught a glimpse of the Tardis, the actual Tardis, sitting quietly in a corner of the pedestrian precinct. It was surrounded by bustling gaffers, grips and Best Boys (or is there only one Best Boy?) who were fiddling with lights and cables, but I didn’t notice them. I was six and half again, and I was looking at the Tardis. Brilliant. And if the Tardis was here, a certain Time Lord was probably not too far away… Maybe they were filming with him today after all!

We were led into a very warm community centre and told to sit in the hallway. I heard a familiar voice coming from a nearby room. Billie Piper (for it was she) soon emerged, in conversation with a tall, good looking young man (he’s almost exactly my age): David Tennant. The tenth Doctor had arrived. Oh look, I thought (as he walked outside saying “I’ve met her, yes. She’s lovely,” to Billie), he’s still wearing Eccleston’s leather jacket. They must be filming a scene early in the episode, just after he’s regenerated, before he has a chance to put on his new outfit. Unfortunately, I did actually say this as well as think it. Fellow extras eyed me suspiciously. “Um,” I added, “I watched a few episodes of the last series, you know. It was quite good, I thought.” Luckily for my ‘cover’, a discussion of past Doctors ensued, which concluded, as all such discussions amongst the ‘general public’ do, that the bloke with the scarf was good, but those later ones were a bit crap. Especially that little bloke, whasisname.

The hallway was stifling, so I wandered outside into the drizzle (still in my dressing gown) to watch the scene being shot. Being an official Supporting Artiste (we’re SA’s don’t you know. Never ‘extras’. That’s common), I was allowed to stand on the right side of the tape that was holding back the assembled crowd. There were some locals, and there were quite a few Doctor Who fans. It was very easy to tell the difference between the two groups. The locals were unfazed. The show had shot here last year after all. Kids were running about excitedly though. One rushed up to me. “You famous, Doctor Who man? Can I get your autograph?” Feeling a fraud, I politely declined to sign the proffered paper. Other extras milling about were happy to scribble their name, but they had been in Harry Potter and EastEnders, and therefore were actually famous as far as the kids were concerned. Meanwhile, the Who fans were watching the action intently, filling the breaks between takes with earnest conversation about ‘writing it up for Gallifrey One’ and the rumour that ‘Tennant will do Tenth Planet signings’. One intense, red-haired woman had made a stuffed toy version of the squid-like innards of a Dalek, and tied it to her backpack. I overheard her saying that she “couldn’t wait to show it to David.” She cast envious glances at me, on the other side of the tape.

The scene seemed to consist of the Doctor emerging from the Tardis into the arms of Rose’s Mum and Mickey, shouting “Merry Christmas!” and promptly collapsing, as Billie appeared in the Tardis doorway, looking concerned. Definitely from the start of the episode, possibly even the last shot of the pre-credits teaser, I thought (but thankfully didn’t say). One take was aborted when the Doctor’s appearance from the Tardis was greeted by a “Whoo!” from the balcony of a nearby flat. Then a car alarm went off. Then a plane flew overhead. Then it really started raining. Slow business, filming. I went back to the hot hallway. Sergio was busy massaging the most attractive female extra in our group. A less attractive extra said, “I’m next Sergio. You never give me a massage…” Sergio grinned. Not a bad job really, being paid to hang around, rubbing attractive women. To give him his due though, he did appear to know his stuff. “Ooh, I’m all gooey inside Sergio,” gasped the attractive extra as he finished with a flourish. It was now 6.30pm, and none of us had been used.

The first AD appeared, and selected four pyjamaed extras, two male, two female, but I wasn’t included. “We need two couples,” he said. “In each couple, one of you is a zombie, and the other is trying to stop their partner from wandering off.” The selected ones nodded seriously, and were led away. (We saw them again later, but they hadn’t ended up filming anything.)

It was 7pm, and us remaining extras were bussed back to base. Lunch wouldn’t be until 7.30, but even though the catering van was wafting all sorts of enticing smells, SAs weren’t allowed near it until all the rest of the cast and crew had come back and got their food. This is standard practice on sets (for the very good reason that the cast and crew need to get back to work as quickly as possible, and can’t afford to queue up behind a bunch of extras who only have some waiting about to get on with). Nevertheless, it seems to be a constant source of friction. When it came to it, by the time we got our lunch, two of the seven (!) different choices of meal had run out, and they didn’t have any bread. Sergio was not amused. “Where is the bread?” he asked the man behind the counter. “We put out what we had mate. When it’s gone, it’s gone.” Sergio waved his hand dismissively as he walked off. “I will ask the person in charge what is going on,” he said. “You can ask me, ‘cos I’m in charge of catering,” the chef replied, but Sergio had gone. “Right, he’s a marked man, that ****,” said the chef to his colleague. “What a total ****. I ought to **** in his ****ing ******, the ****. Yes mate?”

I asked for the pasta, and said thank you. Very politely.

Back in the double decker, there was more sitting about. Then a shock. The 2nd AD appeared, to announce that half of us were to be ‘wrapped’ for the day, and sent home, unused. That’s not at all unusual apparently, and of course you still get paid, so the majority on the list were neither surprised nor annoyed. Two of the women were aghast though. “We have children!” one said. “My son rang all his mates telling them his Mum is going to be in Doctor Who!” said the other. “He’s more impressed by this than when I was in Harry Potter!” It’s nice to know that the show has become that popular with kids again so quickly, I thought. In the end, the ladies swapped with people who were on the list to stay, but weren’t bothered either way. Luckily, I was on the list to stay already. And I was not going to swap with anyone.

“Change of plan. Zombies are out the window,” said the 1st AD. “ We just need passers by. Those that are staying, change into your civvies and go to make-up.” I’d been told to bring an overcoat, hat and scarf (I was going to wear a scarf, in Doctor Who!) as well as my bedclothes, so I went to change. Make-up consisted once again of me being told I looked fine as is. I wasn’t sure how to take this. Back to the location. The Tardis was by now covered in a condom-like cover, to protect it from the rain, which was still drizzling down. It looked like a pretty major shot was being set up. A cherry-picker had appeared, and the camera was being put on a big boom, which was itself on tracks. We waited for another few hours in the hot hallway. By now, a guard had been put on the door of the community centre, to stop kids wandering in and out, looking for famous people, as they had done during the afternoon.

Two old ladies appeared, and the guard immediately tensed, all but doffing his cap (even though he wasn’t wearing one) as he let them in. The old ladies began a long conversation about a local shop owner, and how he was “out of order, and just wants to make a nuisance of himself. He just wants the attention, really.” I noticed that they both had name badges: ‘Dot. Doctor Who’ read one. ‘Gwen. Doctor Who’ the other. “Come on love, let’s get our chairs,” said Dot, who reappeared from then-empty actors’ green room next to the hall with a plastic chair. Gwen seemed to be taking some time. “What you doing in there?” shouted Dot, who turned to us. “She’d take a bloody comfy chair if she could.” “I would an’ all,” said Gwen, finally emerging with another plastic one. They tottered outside again.

“Who on earth were those ladies?” I asked the 1st AD, who’d just come in. “Residents’ Association,” he said. “You always have to pay someone off to get location filming done without any hassle, and round here, it’s those two. You don’t mess with them.” Fair enough. Later, I noticed that Dot and Gwen (and their chairs) had been given a prime position to watch the filming.

After mere hours of hanging about, suddenly, The Doctor walked in. “Hello,” he said.

END OF PART ONE...