6 April 2016

DWAS@40 Spirit of 76

Next month the Doctor Who Appreciation Society will turn 40. In the first of three posts looking at the Society's early days we discover how a college fan society went national. See also the DWAS@40 Gallery page above.



In 2016 the idea of a Doctor Who Appreciation Society sounds out of time. With social media, blogs, websites and other online resources as well as easy access to all existing old episodes there is really no need for a formal organisation to link Who fans with each other across the country. However forty years ago things were very different.  It was fanzines that were able to link people but they were published irregularly and due to the costs of production came and went. There had been Doctor Who fan clubs in the past and there was still nominally an official DWFC then but these clubs acted as providers only. They stood or fell on the enthusiasm of one or two activists. They would send newsletters and photos out but that was all. The mid Seventies was the perfect time for something like the DWAS to ferment as the show was becoming more sophisticated just as a tranche of its biggest fans grew up. Whereas they might have been expected to abandon something like Doctor Who after leaving school the quality and popularity of the 1970s series meant many did not. At University level a more active, social approach was prevalent on a number of campuses’ Doctor Who societies. This model was distinct from a fan club which was more passive and loyal.



In May 1976 it was a few months after the classic `Seeds of Doom` had first been shown, Tom Baker was at his imperial best and the series was getting very high ratings. Yet Doctor Who fans round the UK were feeling somewhat isolated. The official Doctor Who Fan Club had seemingly stalled leaving a void. However a number of universities had their own Doctor Who societies which were more proactive and social. One of these was at London’s Westfield College and its organisers included Jan Vincent- Rudzki who had helped out with the DWFC and Stephen Payne. Jan was also a contributor to the fanzine `Tardis` which had been launched by Andrew Johnson in 1975. Another of its writers was Gordon Blows and a number of its readers were also eager to take on a more active fan role. Though Andrew Johnson himself never joined the fledgling society his zine was a significant factor in its formation. It was during discussions that Rudzki, Payne and Blows decided to expand the Westfield College Society into a national one. 
To undertake such a venture they were going to need more help. Via a `Tardis` ad, other members were found who would form an executive committee to run things. Jeremy Bentham was a descendent of his famous namesake and had amassed a huge collection of information about the series' history and in the days of there being little information about the series around these would form the basis of a reference department. Keith Barnfather joined to helm the social side of things; a pen pal zine called 'Celestial Toyroom` was soon launched, while Stuart Glazebrook, a Lancashire based artist was asked to run an Art department after having his impressive work printed in 'Tardis` which itself was 'hijacked' to become the official DWAS fanzine to be edited by Blows. Stephen Payne became the co-ordinator with Jan Vincent Rudzki the President. 

May 6 1976 was the official start of the Society, which was publicised on LBC in London and via "Tardis. Initially, just over 100 members joined; it was free but members paid for the zine. The Society was further boosted in September 1976 when the International Doctor Who Fan Club merged with DWAS.
The new Society was to be a hive of activity with `Tardis` on a monthly schedule including news and interviews as well as the Pen Pal/ Swaps newsletter `Celestial Toyroom`. For previously isolated fans this connection was a palpable strengthening of their support of the programme. Not that `Tardis` always got the news right as the story of Emily Richard being the new companion after Sarah’s departure showed! The Reference department run by Jeremy Bentham began producing detailed STINFOs (or Story Information Sheets) on the history of the show.
Membership continued to rise so much so that it soon became clear the DWAS correspondence was overwhelming the college postal system so had to be moved to a private address. Ambitiously the exec also started planning for a convention, to be held in 1977 at a church hall in Battersea. An overseas department was opened to deal with an increasing number of members who did not live in the UK.  The Society also started to become recognised by the BBC with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his successor Graham Williams engaging with them albeit at a distance.
The most significant development came only about six months into the DWAS’ existence when Jan Vincent Rudzki penned a scathing review of `The Deadly Assassin` the sort of feature that the old DWFC would never have run and the kind of piece that few fans had seen. The fall- out from this review did two things. One was establishing the DWAS’ ultimate editorial independence from the BBC, something that would later lead to difficulties. Secondly it encouraged other fans to be more critical and analytical, to say more than just how good the monster costumes were. In effect it meant that there was, for the first time, a public Doctor Who forum of intelligence and opinion.
By the start of 1977 the DWAS had over 400 members and planning for the first convention was well underway. That year saw a number of significant firsts in the development of the DWAS, though not all of them weregood. On the positive side the Society began to form local groups of DWAS members in a particular area; the first of these was in Stoke On Trent. The Writers Pool was launched to incorporate the burgeoning amount of Doctor Who fiction being submitted and this was run by John Peel (no, not that one) and Steven Evans. Occasional issues of a fiction only zine `Cosmic Masque` would be published. On the minus side the first instance of a member being expelled happened that year when someone had been charged with theft of `Radio Times` pages from a public library. More seriously the DWAS had its first legal hurdle when Graham Williams pointed out to the Exec how many copyright laws the Society was breaking in relation to selling photographs and soundtracks. This had to be far more strictly regulated and CT had to stop advertising soundtracks.
The culmination of the DWAS’ rise came on August 6 1977 when they held their first convention
at Broomswood Church Hall in Battersea. Organised by Keith Barnfather the event was simply titled Convention 77; the distinctive PanoptiCon moniker wasn't used until the following year. On the day it was pouring with rain; a convention tradition that became as familiar as long autograph queues and colour coded badges in subsequent years. Eager attendees can't have known quite what to expect and were greeted with a hall covered in photos from the show as well as entries for an art competition. At Star Trek cons these sort of participation events are part and parcel of proceedings but somehow they never really caught on in Who fandom despite this early enthusiasm.
The stage was dominated by the TARDIS prop from the two 60s films and a couple of Daleks as well. One of the traditions of early cons was to have a slide show which may seem a quaint practice today but don't forget that in the Seventies few had access to a video recorder and even if they had there were no old episodes available to the public to play. These presentations were nostalgic and, often, a particular slide would draw applause notably any of the older Doctors or of Roger Delgado which indicates that 70s fans enjoyed the show in a simpler and more open way. The pictures were accompanied by a soundtrack mixing extracts from the episodes with suitable music. There was also a props display featuring such creatures as an Exxilon and Aggedor.
The real stars though were the guests and for many this was their first ever encounter with their television heroes in the flesh. Jon Pertwee, some three years out of the show by then, turned up in a regal crimson and scarlet version of his costume and must have realised for the first time that day just how loyal and enthusiastic the programme’s followers were. Imagine the thrill of 3rd Doctor fans then at finally seeing him in real life for the first time. As he left the stage there was a spontaneous rush of people with things to be autographed and he was all too willing to do so. Next up was special effects expert Mat Irvine who let everyone in on some of the behind the scenes secrets with the aid of a collection of models and props and even a giant spider. Plus there was a preview of some of the effects from the then forthcoming 'Invisible Enemy '.
Of course Tom Baker was the current Doctor and he shared his afternoon panel with Louise Jameson. Neither turned up in costume; Louise for obvious reasons, while Tom chose to wear a shabby grey mac. It was a lively session, Tom even going as far as stating he didn't think the series was violent enough as well as stressing the benign attributes of the role in the eyes of children. They both did a lengthy signing session. The final panel of the day paired current producer Graham Williams with former script editor Terrance Dicks at that time turning out the series novelisations for Target Books at a frantic pace. Both were questioned as much about the future than the past and Graham also received the DWAS Season Poll award on behalf of Robert Holmes for 'Talons of Weng Chiang (imagine having to choose your favourite in that poll!). The event concluded with a few more presentations and a screening of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD. The event was a huge success and confirmed that the DWAS had well and truly arrived.

Next Time- Growing Pains.

3 comments:

  1. As glad as I am to have every last existing scrap of Doctor Who on DVD (well, apart from the ones that are still in Philip Morris' shed), sometimes you can't help but look back fondly on the days when we didn't, and everyone appreciated what they DID get just that bit more, slide shows and all. Less Is More, I guess.

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  2. Slides back in the day were extra speical because they included images that we'd either never seen or never seen in colour.

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  3. Especially The Rare Photo Of The Rill. That was rare, you know.

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