Back to the bloodthirsty stones

Continuing my theme of trying to keep January away from my brain – or alternatively trying to get my brain through January, i bought a Doctor Who box set a week or so back and have been happily working my way through it. It’s called The Key To Time. Naturally it stars Tom Baker aka the Fourth Doctor. He was my Doctor and apart from Eric Morecambe the great hero of my childhood; but what prompted me to buy this particular box set was discovering, via YouTube, a clip of the story which gave me nightmares – the most wonderful, beautiful nightmares! – after i watched it as a kid.

It was so long ago that i didn’t even recall the title, just that it involved a circle of standing stones which came to life in the night and smashed down people’s doors so they could drink the inhabitants’ blood. In my imagination the stones were huge and absolutely realistic. I would dream that the circle was on a hill just beyond our house and watch as one came to life. Paralysed with terror – indeed i would be literally unable to move, let alone cry out – i would lie in bed as the stone made its way down the hill. It would smash its way through the front door, glide up the stairs – it was always me it was coming for – and then, as it came crashing through my bedroom door i’d wake up, sweating with fear. Fantastic.

Other than the stones i could recall nothing about the story itself apart from a scene in which dear old K-9 is nearly killed trying to hold them off (How i cried!). Well, that’s not entirely true: i did remember the Doctor (of course). Romana though – this first incarnation of her played by Mary Tamm – i had no recollection of at all. Re-watching The Key To Time stories now i find this incredible, not least because she’s gorgeous. But then i was only about 8 or 9 i suppose. Sex appeal was lost on me.

The Stones of Blood is the third story in the Key To Time (16th series of Doctor Who). Perhaps i had always known that i could find it if i wanted to. In the age of the internet it’s almost too easy to find things. But at some level i’d always feared that the glory of that childhood memory would be diminished if i saw it all again through adult eyes – saw the dodgy props and the sets which were so clearly the interior of a studio. YouTube though gives you a way to peer back into a show without fully committing yourself to the experience. You watch a clip on a miniature screen, as though looking through a telescope at something in the distance.

Did it seem diminished? Well, obviously not or else i wouldn’t have bought the box set. Inevitably, the stones are quite laughably unreal, yet so strong is my recollection of my childhood terror that they still gave me a thrill when i saw them. More than that, i realised how much the show for me was always about enjoying the mixture of wit and loneliness that is Tom Baker. Him and plucky, clunky K-9 – my generation’s Lassie. This is still my impression now that i’m more than halfway through the six stories. Never mind the terrible editing or plots that don’t make sense (why does Romana walk backwards off a cliff?), it’s still magic.

What i’m loving most of all though are the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. My God are they hilarious together: Tom who can’t remember anything about the episode he’s watching and who greets each absurdity with a mixture of childlike glee and acerbic wit – in one scene where the druids are gathered in the stone circle to perform a sacrifice he suggests that they’re going to sacrifice Adric, one his less-loved Companions. And Mary who is a delicious flirt (why did she not flirt like that with him in the show?) and who has a wry humour all her own. I love the story she tells of flashing in the wings one night when she was appearing in panto with Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Someone should bring Tom and Mary back together in a Doctor Who audio play. Free of the ravages of time, the limitations of the BBC’s special effects department and the general awfulness of 70s television they would have the Universe saved in no time at all.

Morecambe & Hamlet: the Christmas double act

Morecambe and Hamlet: one unexpectedly disappointed, the other just as unexpectedly thrilled.

I went to see the play Morecambe about the comedian Eric Morecambe on the 23 December as my pre-Christmas treat. Well, that was the idea. Eric Morecambe was my childhood hero. I have half a dozen books about him or Morecambe & Wise as a double act, the DVDs of their TV series – you know the sort of fan. More to the point, i also saw and loved the show which the Right Size did about Morecambe & Wise some years ago, so when i read about the new show – and read its rave reviews – i got very excited indeed. The fact that Ernie was reduced to a puppet in the play did vaguely perturb me, but i shrugged the feeling off. None of the reviewers had suggested this was a problem.

On the night though i realised i should have paid more attention to my misgivings, as within five minutes of the show’s start it was clear that it simply didn’t work. Not for me anyhow. The play was a monologue, but Eric’s comedy was all about conversation: on stage, ‘in the flat’, ‘in bed’. Without the ebb and flow of that conversation between him and Ernie the jokes felt flat and clunky. On top of that the actor, Bob Golding, had a voice that was too high pitched and a tendency to gabble his lines – unlike Eric who knew when and how to leave spaces.

So that was that. I left at the interval and, making the best of the situation, went off to the supermarket to finish my Christmas shopping. Fast forward to Boxing Day and i decide to watch David Tennant in Hamlet, which i’d recorded earlier the same day. I was in two minds about whether to bother and, after the Morecambe debacle, the glowing reviews were more suspect than seducing. In the end it was the lack of an alternative that induced me to press play; there just didn’t seem to be anything else on worth watching.

As with Morecambe i realised my error of judgement within minutes: the production was marvellous! David Tennant, who i’d previously dismissed as a gurning ferret, was simply a revelation in the title part; and both Patrick Stewart (Claudius) and the actor who played Laertes were great. In fact, the whole cast was good or better. The actors played their roles in modern dress, which initially i wasn’t sure about; but which very quickly made total sense – and the language! My God, i’d never realised just how beautiful that play is.

I suppose the moral of the story is the old one about being wary of assumptions. The people behind Morecambe probably assumed Ernie was more or less superfluous and i assumed that David Tennant couldn’t act. Wrong, wrong.

Back from a funeral

Just back from a funeral. The man who died was a colleague in his early 50s, an extremely popular man, and the suddenness of his death has left the office in his shock. “I keep expecting to him to walk through the door,” is a remark I’ve heard several times; and it’s true, it really does just feel like he’s on holiday. I’m sure it’s different for his family: for them the absence will already be too long to feel normal; but for his co-workers, myself included, grief is precluded by a feeling of unreality.

This, i think, explains the scene at the crematorium as we all waited for the family to arrive. People were laughing and joking and talking about their everyday lives. It was only when the hearses came through the gate, bearing the coffin and the family, that a hush came over us. Suddenly, we had visible proof – if only indirectly in the form of the coffin – that a death really had occurred. We stood and watched as the procession drew nearer, preceded by two men in the uniform of the undertaker: formal coats and top hats.

At this point i was aware of a feeling of expectancy – the necessary ritual had begun. ‘Finally,’ i thought, ‘ i will understand that he’s dead.’ But as the family emerged from the hearses they were laughing and joking. They had obviously decided to make it ‘a happy occasion’. I understand why they chose to do this and the ‘celebration of life’ was very moving in parts, not to mention illuminating: i’d never realised that he was a fellow Morecambe & Wise fan. Still, i can’t help but feel that we do need in some way to address the death. A person was alive and now they are dead – and they will always be dead. We need a ritual to allow us to cross the bridge from the first of those realities to the second.

As it is, somewhere inside me i’m still expecting him to be back in work – tomorrow perhaps or maybe next week. How he’ll laugh when we tell him he’s dead…

The beige years

What do you remember about the Seventies? I remember they were beige. The bank in which we used to queue for hours for example: beige carpets, beige wallpaper, beige uniforms – I swear, even the wood of the counters was beige. I could be misremembering this of course, not least because beige is contagious: once it gets into one of your memories it spreads until it contaminates them all.

So my school too was beige: the headmaster’s suit, his shoes, his hair. Actually, I lie: his shoes weren’t beige, they were tan (even worse!). And they squeaked. My main memory of the school, apart from the headmaster’s feet, was the odour of “posh” instant coffee. Does anyone remember when there was such a thing as posh instant? Douwe Egberts for instance, such a step above Nescafé – though even Nescafé was better than that stuff made of chicory which came in a bottle. What on earth was that called? The teachers drank posh coffee. Their staff room, that mysterious place strictly forbidden to us, stank of it when the door opened. But then they were middle class and that meant something then.

Looking back, the Seventies is all about school for me. When weren’t at school we were on holiday from school. The summer break (six weeks!) was heaven. In my memory every summer was hot and sunny. Health & Safety hadn’t yet been invented so we ran wild “down the meadows” and in “the woods”. We swam with our dog in a river full of whirlpools. We dared one another to walk along a high wall of crumbling brick – with concrete on either side. We played football. We got into fights.

Easter i’m a bit vague about but Christmas was “ace”: suddenly beige was no more! The ceiling would be covered with crêpe streamers: pink, orange, green, red and blue. There would be balloons, there would be cards, a real Christmas tree (always huge in my memories) which we’d cover with tinsel and shiny balls, and then top with a star. Of course there were presents, almost all of them from Woolworth’s and only a few of which i can recall: a blue bike, a Monopoly set, two Tell Me Why books. Food: brazil nuts and tangerines. Television: Morecambe and Wise.

All too soon though it was Twelfth Night and time to take the bright colours down. Back to beige and back to school.

— For “M” —