Friday, 23 November 2012

"1963" - an anniversary excerpt

Today is the twenty-third of November – the anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who, back in 1963.

I’ve written on this blog before about my attempt in 2005 to write a novel about the creation of Doctor Who. So I thought I’d go back and fish out a short excerpt from it to post here. It’s not a great piece of writing – frankly it’s pretty average, at best. It’s too much an attempt to cram in people and events and anecdotes from all the real history, although the very end of the section – based on an apparently true story – isn’t bad, I suppose.

I know it could be dangerous to post bits of my writing here which I know not to be great, but what the hell? It is an anniversary, after all! I could do better these days, honest...

As we join it, one of my main characters – fictional production secretary Gillian – has been asked to attend what we might now call a “brainstorming” dinner of writers and executives to work on a new Saturday teatime project – an educational science-fiction serial for children…

She was a little late arriving at the restaurant, eventually getting there in something of a fluster at about ten past. Fortunately, she quite easily spotted Donald and the others at their table – she felt considerably nervous about being out with the Head of Drama, the Head of Serials and who-knew-what other important BBC ‘Head ofs’, but luckily for her there were a couple of others there who she at least knew by sight. As well as Mr Wilson and Mr Newman, there was a man she recognised at once as Bunny Webber, one of the staff writers, and another staffer Wilson introduced to her as ‘Tony’, who was somewhat nearer her age, and Australian.

She was seated next to another younger man, somewhere in his early thirties, who introduced himself as Richard. He was evidently a new director fresh from the training course who’d been earmarked to work on this new series they were plotting, whatever it turned out to be. Finally, at the other end of the table, arguing with Newman, was a man called Tucker, who was apparently supposed to be producing the thing, but didn’t look happy about it.

“He’s just supposed to be getting things rolling while they wait for Newman’s chosen one to arrive,” Richard joked to her, as she took a grateful swig of the wine she’d been offered.

“Who’s that then?” she asked quietly. “I mean, who does he want to produce it?”

“Some girl who worked for him at ABC apparently,” Richard said. “Lambert, she’s called. She was with him on Armchair Theatre and she’s been in the US working with Susskind. I can’t see the rest of the Drama Group standing for it personally, but then again it’s his department. Apparently he offered it to Taylor and Sutton, but they both turned it down.”

Gillian nodded, pretending to know exactly who he was talking about, and wondering if she was to be bored to death by Drama Group politicking all night. Still, she took out the pen and pad of paper she’d brought, ready to jot down anything she was asked to, or that seemed to be important.

There she remained, still awaiting something worth noting as dessert arrived.

Richard kept trying to engage her in conversation with tales of his work on the director’s course and other things she hardly found thrilling, and although Wilson was polite and asked after her, he was too involved in his discussions with Webber, Newman, Tucker and the Australian writer, Tony, to pay her much attention. She felt ignored, she was bored, but at least the wine was good. She had to be careful though – she was, after all, only supposed to be there to make sure any brilliant ideas were noted down and not forgotten by anybody else in a drunken haze, and getting tipsy in front of her boss and his colleagues would hardly enhance her career prospects.

The arguments had begun to arrive at roughly the same time the main course did. Newman was holding court at the end of the table, gesticulating dramatically and making his views very firmly known, his voice carrying more powerfully than the others partly because of his excitement, and partly because his Canadian accent made him more noticeable. Gillian began to become a little embarrassed as diners at other tables glanced their way, but nobody else seemed to mind much – they were presumably used to this sort of thing from their Head of Department.

“He is not,” Newman declared, and then paused to say it again. “He is not anti-science. I’m sorry Bunny, but that’s just rubbish. Well, no, I’ll tell you what it is, it’s bol…”

“I think what he means,” Wilson tactfully interrupted. “Is that if we’re going to have a programme which is to educate children about the benefits of science and explore the future in an interesting and imaginative way, we cannot do it with a central character who is opposed to science. Otherwise, why would he have a time machine, for a start? That’s a scientific device, is it not?”

“Exactly!” Newman declared. “He’s a scientist, an inventor… He embraces all that stuff. He’s a genius!”

“That’s the point though,” Tucker put in irritably. “Who is he?”

“He’s a refugee,” Webber explained. “He’s fleeing from a war in the forty-ninth century, he stole the time machine because it’s the first one he could get his hands on, and he left because he was afraid of the war. The idea being that he keeps moving from place to place or else the authorities will track him down.”

“So why does he have the girl with him?” Richard asked. “Sorry I’ve forgotten her name…”

“Biddy,” Tucker said.

“No, we changed it to Susan,” Tony corrected. Thus far he’d been casually sitting back eating and drinking, watching the exchanges between the others with a detached, slightly amused look, but now he leaned forward and became involved. “Well, I think it’s a better name anyway.”

“Susan then,” Richard said. “Why is she with him?”

“She’s a princess,” Webber said, much to Newman’s apparent disapproval, as he shook his head and muttered something to Wilson. “He rescued her from the forty-ninth century and he’s travelling with her, on the run, when they arrive on Earth in the present day. They stay for a short while, she enrols in the local school, and that’s when our two teachers become involved.”

“Ah yes,” Richard said, “Cliff and Miss McGovern…”

“No, Ian and Barbara,” Tony corrected again.

“My God, it changes every week,” Tucker despaired, taking the wine bottle and re-filling his glass. It was clear even to Gillian that he was not keen on this project.

She hadn’t really noted anything useful on her pad – she knew that a fair bit of this was already flying around in memos; she’d seen some of them while working for Wilson this past week. It sounded very confusing and muddled to her, and she couldn’t imagine it getting off the ground.

“What about the ship?” Newman himself asked. “Does anybody have any good ideas for that yet? I’m sorry Bunny, but I just don’t like the ‘nothing at the end of the lane’ idea. Light-reflective paint just seems a bit… Well I think it’s a pretty lazy concept.”

Webber didn’t look too offended, but Gillian had to stop herself from laughing. The more she heard about all this, the less able she was to take it seriously. She noted down ‘no light-reflective paint’, more to amuse herself than anything else. Various other suggestions came from those around the table.

“A night watchman’s shelter!”

“A sedan chair!”

“A Corinthian pillar!”

“A potting shed…”

Much laughter. Gillian was, however, a little confused, and despite the illustrious company she decided to speak up.

“Sorry, I don’t quite understand… There are four characters who are supposed to travel around in this thing, correct?”

Wilson nodded. The Australian, Tony, looked as if he was about to say something, but stopped himself.

“So,” she continued, “how are they all supposed to fit into something so small? Have I missed something?”

More laughter. She felt embarrassed, and began to wish she hadn’t come, but Tony finally spoke up.

“Of course you’ve missed something,” he joked, pretending it must have been obvious to everyone. “The ship is bigger on the inside than it is on the out.”

Now she knew they were making fun of her.

“There’s no need to tease!” she protested. Tony, however, held up his hands in a gesture of innocence, and then pointed at Newman.

“Just ask the boss,” he said. “His idea.”

Newman, to her surprise, nodded, and seemed interested in her opinion.

“What do you think?”

She thought it was a load of old nonsense.

“It’s certainly… Original.”

“Exactly! That’s what we want, originality!” he looked around the rest of the table. “Ideas! What does it look like? Come on! It has to be something so bland and ordinary nobody would ever guess what was hidden inside it. Something that fits in, here and now!”

“What happened to the idea of it changing to blend in wherever it landed?” Richard asked.

“Too expensive,” Wilson explained. “We’ll explain that the device which usually changes it is broken, and it’ll stay in whatever shape it’s in when it’s in London, nineteen sixty-three.”

“If we ever agree on a shape,” Tucker pointed out.

And so it went on. And on. And on. Gillian wondered if people ever imagined this sort of thing went on when they thought of the BBC… Certainly she never had when before she’d gone to work there.

In the end, she didn’t write anything else down until later, when they were all getting up to leave. After having moved on from the new show in particular to the BBC and then life in general, Newman had suddenly decided that one important attribute the programme they were planning was lacking was a title.

The Time Travellers!”

The Time Machine… Oh no, hang on, that one’s been done hasn’t it…”

The Doctor and Friends…”

We Don’t Have the Budget for This But We’re Going to Try Our Best Anyway?”

Gillian had put her note pad away, and was just pocketing her pen when either Newman or Tucker – she didn’t quite hear who – suggested a title that stuck in her mind and made her jot the name down quickly on a paper napkin, which she stuffed into her handbag. It wasn’t until the following morning when she found it that she remembered even taking note of the suggestion. However, she made sure she copied it down and added it to the other notes she had written, to take into work on Monday just in case it ended up being useful at all.

Two words, quickly scrawled on the white napkin.

Doctor Who. Question mark.

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