Who and Me: My Secret Past as a Doctor Who Fan…
“My name is Steve Clark and I’m a Doctor Who fan…”
Until Doctor Who’s triumphant return in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the starring role, admitting you were a Doctor Who fan was a bit of social faux pas. It was a very uncool thing to do – so most people didn’t, even if they were.
Now, it seems everyone is a Doctor Who fan. We are all out of the closet. Or rather the Tardis.
I wish I could travel back in time for real to pinpoint exactly when Doctor Who came into my life – but it must have been the mid – or more likely the late – seventies. I remember watching it (almost certainly from behind a sofa or at least a cushion) at my grandparent’s house. But it wasn’t until 1981 when my love of the show turned me into something more akin to being a real fan.
That year saw the screening of a whole season of repeats of old episodes under the banner of “Five Faces of Doctor Who” and it was then I became a proper fan. I read an article in my local paper about another fan called David Stead and contacted him. David was a smashing chap and lived nearby. He in turn introduced me to a wider network of fans. (Incidentally Doctor Who fans have a great deal to thank David for, as it was he who recovered and returned some missing episodes of the show to the BBC Archives including episode 3 of The Wheel In Space)
Over the next few years I went to conventions (including badgering my parents to take me and my long-suffering brother and younger sisters to the BBC 1983’s 20th anniversary convention at Longleat, which I seem to recall was a bit of a bun fight with far more people turning up than predicted) and my Gran knitted me a Doctor Who scarf (which is still in my loft somewhere).
Video recorders were rare back then so I had to rely on taping the audio of new episodes onto a cassette recorder (either using the headphone socket or making the whole family watch in silence!) and I tried to produce my own Doctor Who news radio show and made my two little sisters read bits out. I wrote off to many of the cast for autographs and can still remember the day I came home from school to find a note from Patrick Troughton – and was naively surprised that he’d even addressed the envelope himself…
I’d buy anything Doctor Who that came out and would trawl the many old charity shops and second-hand bookshops of my hometown of Portsmouth for old Who annuals and I soon built up a pretty large collection of memorabilia (all funded by my Saturday job in a greengrocer’s shop, which, younger readers, was where people bought fruit and veg before ‘super’markets killed most of them off) and occasional stints at car washing.
David and I would try to arrange interviews with any Doctor Who cast members playing in local theatres and, to their credit, I don’t recall any of them saying no. In their dressing rooms at The Kings Theatre in Southsea we interviewed Deborah Watling, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding and then I ventured off on my own to Southampton to talk to Mary Tamm, Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Producer John Nathan-Turner. We even went to London to interview legendary seventies Who producer Barry Letts.
When they filmed Revelation of the Daleks at the newly-built and, for its time rather futurist, IBM UK headquarters at North Harbour, Portsmouth, John Nathan-Turner let me watch filming – although standing around in the snow, even to watch a bit of Doctor Who being filmed, wasn’t a lot of fun to be honest.
I started my own fan magazine called The Ambassador at one point – my first time in print, I suppose – typed on an old manual typewriter with headlines in Letraset. It was pretty awful, but I know at least one copy reached America because someone kindly wrote to me to say they liked it…
By the time Doctor Who was ‘paused’ in 1985 between series 22 and 23 my active interest in the series – particularly the current version – was already slightly on the wane. I think I probably felt deep down that the show had frankly become a bit silly (a good actor, Colin Baker, was hampered by a bizarre pantomime costume and some strange producing decisions). I was at college by now and my interests moved more on to other things – and people. I sold most of my collection – for several hundred pounds, which was rather a lot back then.
The following year I landed my first job as a journalist and within a few years found myself specialising in television. Even though it was my job to interview people on telly, my professional writing career would bring me more contact with Doctor Who and its cast than I would have ever expected.
Within a year I interviewed Jon Pertwee when he visited Portsmouth’s Sealife Centre to dive into a fish tank for Children In Need (left) A couple of years later spent a day interviewing Jon at his holiday home in Majorca (below). He was brilliant company and incredibly generous with his time. We kept in touch regularly until his death in 1996 and at one point we even discussed doing a second volume of his autobiography. To that end, at Jon’s suggestion, I sat in the sound engineers’ control box at the Mermaid Theatre to record his one-man show as a starting point.
Over the next two decades I was lucky enough to interview Tom Baker (in Manchester, where he was filming the ITV drama Medics. He was hilarious, but most of the interview was unusable), Peter Davison, Colin Baker – plus a string of companions for a mix of articles including Where Are They Now features and profiles.
In 1999 I wrote a book about David Renwick’s BBC drama Jonathan Creek– and got to know legendary Doctor Who founding producer Verity Lambert a bit. She had a steely reputation, but she was always very nice to me. Watching Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure In Time and Space, made me appreciate more than ever before just what a ground-breaking producer she had been – and how much sexism she must have had to overcome at the BBC in the early 1960s.
Before Doctor Who returned in the spring of 2005 I went to Wales for set visit (and went inside the Tardis!) then, a few months later, the press screening at a swish hotel in Cardiff. From the moment the new theme music (far more like the original version) began, I had a hunch the Doctor Who was back with a vengeance. It seemed in very safe hands with Russell T. Davies, who was clever enough to let it evolve and update, yet also pay homage to its roots.
I was asked by BBC Publicity to write some press pack material for the 2005 series and interview some of the guest cast including Simon Pegg, Richard Wilson, John Barrowman and Simon Callow. Russell T. Davies checked every word and an email from him to the BBC publicist corrected my use of timelord to Time Lord. Oops.
I went to Wales to see Billie Piper and David Tennant shooting some scenes for Rise of the Cybermen and sat around watching the monitor alongside two Cybermen, who were wearing dressing gowns (and no helmets) and I later shared a taxi back to the station with one of them. A few months later I interviewed Billie Piper at Soho House. She was delightful. For the same series I interviewed one of my favourite assistants, Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah-Jane Smith, along with some other guest stars Anthony Head and Jamie Foreman.
One of the great things about Doctor Who is the way is the way it continues to delight generation after generation. I’m a father myself now and I’m looking forward to watching the series with my own children. Then I’ll have a real excuse to go back and watch the classic series all over again, which will be a bit like travelling back in time…
(c) Steve Clark 2013. All rights reserved