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.



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