10 March 2017

Good Times! #19 Battlefield 5 and Resurrection 2001

Battlefield 5 (first published in Faze 2001)

The best thing I saw all weekend? Well, actually it was a band called Mr Bridger playing at the Rocket pub, just round the corner from Coventry station. Funky Hendrix-like with a touch of Nirvana, they made US style rock seem like it could be interesting though for all the attention the Friday night punters were paying, it might as well have been Mr Bridger's Dixieland Showband. It wasn't that they were bad; it was just that they were the wrong group for this crowd. Two days and many panels later, I've come to a similar conclusion about Battlefield 5. The temptation to go on and on with anything creative is always strong but sometimes you need to sit back and remember the sparks that brought the subject to life in the first place.
Battlefield began as a feisty alternative to the established convention lore, which stated that huge gaps would elapse between panels, there would be as much behind the scenes stuff as front of camera celebs and that evenings would consist of funny videos and large scale parlour games. The convention scene needed this boost and it worked well at first. Never had the two-day event seemed so jam packed with stuff nor had it ever passed so quickly. Now ambition has inspired the team to extend the latest event to a three day stretch, the glitzy celebs are still, for the most part, the same people who've been to all the others and the cabaret has mutated from the slightly old school music hall mentality to amateur hour at a nightclub. 

Of course everyone's entitled to an off day (or weekend) and how were the team to know that they'd clash with a US con and the lure of sunshine on a weekend when Coventry received a dusting of snow and shivered in icy Arctic winds. Perhaps it was the weather that kept the attendees in the hall? Or perhaps the celeb access, now better than ever - people said "hello" to the likes of Nick Courtney as he strolled past. They didn't say that to me or anyone else who wasn't from Doctor Who! Rumours of arguments over money were rife (one of the original team having quit in acrimonious circumstances) and grumbling from the dealers (shoved into inappropriate corners) also gave more than an air of the familiar to proceedings. So, under the circumstances it seemed more important than ever to seek out new life.

Big Finish have hijacked the attention this past couple of years with their splendid new adventures, but we tend to forget that BBV are still producing their own version of Doctor Who in both sound and vision. It's an easy option to compare the two - and several questions at BBV panels tried to incite a rivalry - but BBV arguably did a lot of the groundwork that allowed the idea of new adventures to gain currency. Their latest 'Cyberon`, premiered here, starting promisingly enough, raising issues of deteriorating health problems, a better world, hospital mentality and so on. It builds creepily too, Bill B himself adding a shadowy touch to the direction and there is a hint that the characters may just be real. Unfortunately it does tail off a bit towards the ending. Still, they might have better luck with 'Do you have a license to save this planet? their first comedy, 10 minutes of which were shown on Sunday. Featuring Sylvester McCoy travelling in a washing machine, lots of monster acting the goat (a Sontaran couple pretending to be a family- brilliant!) and a very high standard of effects, this seems promising. Don't mess up the ending, lads.

In the absence of Tom (working) it was left to Messrs C Baker and McCoy to fill in the gap, which they managed admirably. Both have settled into their post-Who roles with ease; Colin Baker is booming and brash, but with a laudably socialist agenda never far from the surface. Actors going on about the rights and wrongs of society usually sound a little hollow but here is someone with a balanced view of the world and once again one is left thinking that it was a pity he never got the chance to put more of these qualities into his Doctor. Yes, he does tell his 'Arc of Infinity' anecdotes again, but rather like the 'Inferno' eye patch, we'd miss it if he didn't.
Sylvester McCoy is like one of those Duracell bunnies, relentlessly pounding out his stuff and always interesting. He told fascinating tales of his time with Ken Campbell when he was 'the human bomb' and used to put ferret down his trousers (they went into a sealed pocket by the way) How much of his crazy paving behaviour started out as an act isn't clear but he seems to have become the vague, distracted personality of his on stage persona, yet is grounded enough to mention that if there's an air fare involved, he takes a job.

By contrast John Nathan Turner is 'on message 'all weekend, except during the cabaret when he and Nick Courtney show up in alarming pink dresses and fright wigs! Acting as if he still were stern faced Mr Producer on each of his panels, especially the Producers Choice (questions submitted in advance and put by John Leeson) JNT is at least admitting to some mistakes now. In hindsight, Col's costume was "awful". He also said he'd wanted to leave the show in 1983 and regretted he hadn't resigned from the BBC and gone freelance but you sense all this is just a way of him hiding his true feelings. Really, he just wishes he could say "no comment" and "stay tuned". 

Every convention has its breathtaking moment when a guest says something genuinely shocking and it was left to Anneke Wills to be alarmingly frank when answering a question about the late Michael Craze. With the event having been billed partly as a tribute to the actor, and with his son Ben in attendance, having donated some personal items of his fathers to the auction, this was the place for the truth to be said. And Anneke said it; Michael had, effectively, been a victim of the business. His career stalled when he spurned his agent's sexual advances and so he ended up running a pub and drinking more and more, putting his health in a
parlous state. When someone says this sort of thing, leaving silence for a few moments, it makes you think about the whole nature of celebrity. It even makes you wonder whether the guests now need these conventions more than the fans do. Year after year, they wear a little of the shine from our childhood memories of the show.

Take the 'Two Doctors' panel in which JNT, Fraser Hines and Gary Downie related behind the scenes tales of their 10 days in Seville. Every anecdote, bar one, was smutty, silly or self-fulfilling. I'm sure they're all nice enough people but are they the sort of people you'd really like to know? It's not their fault; it's our desire for
endless useless anecdotes that make fans feel as if they were there.

Thank goodness then for Stephen Cambden who has appeared from nowhere armed with good, old fashioned information as opposed to silly stories. Opening up the hitherto rarely glimpsed later Tom Baker years, he presented a mixture of slides and some very rare on location footage from 'Shada' which seemed worlds away from shenanigans in Seville and infinitely more about Doctor Who. So, while we may get to see Tom actually smoking a cigarette in costume, we also learn about the deadlines, the problems and the sense of pride and professionalism that abounded. Likewise, Nick Courtney and Caroline John, refreshed by their recent dvd commentary, breathed life into early 70s Who. A word too about John Leeson who is one clever bloke, a great voice artist and wonderfully optimistic about everything. 

Battlefield 5 had its good parts, but sprawled over three days and lacking a variety of guests, they did not add up to a satisfying whole. One event a year is enough for any team and while themed panels was a valiant way to go, perhaps exploring the clashes that resound from different experiences on the show is a better way of creating fireworks.

Resurrection (first published in `Fringeworld` 2001)

Less than a week after 9/11 It was odd to find yourself at something as throwaway as a Doctor Who convention and no amount of Daleks or anecdotes was really going to shift that feeling that, really, we should all have been more appropriately occupied. But what can you do? Sweeping past flags at half-mast, noticing the hotel bar's TVs permanently set to CNN complete with grim subtitles you could not avoid what was going on. Debates about whether Big Finish adventures are canonical played a sad second fiddle to the swirling events of the moment. The guests who mentioned it did so with eloquence. Thus, whatever happens, it is unlikely this convention will be remembered for much else but as they say life does go on and with the first Vortex event in four years came some agreeable panels and rather impressive organisation, particularly regarding autographs. Anneke Wills opened proceedings on Saturday with her brand of new age philosophy claiming she was happy enough growing vegetables. Her refreshing view of life seems, all of a sudden, a far better option for us all and as she reaches 60 (which seems unbelievable) her contentment can only be envied. Deborah Walling was far less willing to give of her inner thoughts on anything other than being thrown into foam or making a film with Cliff Richard and seems to be one of those people cocooned in a showbiz world.

Barry Letts may be quietly spoken but coming from the golden age of both the BBC and the programme has much to impart, notably the way he re-organised the show and his co-writing of all the Robert Sloman stories as well as the casting of Tom. Look at those stories, and indeed his whole period as producer and you'll catch the series at its purest and given the times that is something worth cherishing. It must have been something
in the air but everyone seemed obsessed with age; Barry is 76, which he certainly doesn't seem as he works on his new writing career. Equally the perfect gentleman, Nicholas Courtney was his friendly self but also talked about how he was dissatisfied with the way his book had been promoted and planned to re-do it. The day's panels concluded with a Big Finish talk which was full of plans and anecdotes. Each time they do one of these you can only marvel at how accomplished their finished products are, judging from their descriptions of the shoestring conditions in which they are made.

The evening saw an unusual cabaret opening with a screening of BBV's Do You Have A Licence To Save This
Planet which was excellent communal entertainment with the bar open. Two stand up comedians were drafted in which is certainly a different way to go. The funnier was Andy White with a great line in physical asides and surreal moments plus a well paced set that had the crowd in stitches at times. Every cabaret has at least one 'what the hell is going on' moment and here it was Jo Castleton wearing half an Arabian Knights outfit and singing 'Who Is Doctor Who?`. Had conventions been around in the 60s the whole of the Saturday night would have been like this! Thank goodness then for the comparatively normal disco that followed.

Sunday kicked off with an incisive and delightful Sophie Aldred interview interrupted by her son Adam's show stealing antics! Then it was time for BBV to talk about sundry product. Colin Baker knows lots of long words and they liven up what's become another familiar sounding panel with all the right stories in the right place; Maxil’s helmet, the wedding party, the costume, Michael Grade, Paul Merrony, there are no small parts only small actors - it's like a set list, bless him. Yet he still makes it sound interesting. Dan Freidman smiles a lot and pretends he's about to make TV Doctor Who but we're not as easily roused as we were in 1996 when Philip Segal had us cheering from the rafters with his pre- transmission hints of roundels, wood carving and Paul McGann. Times have changed but if impish Dan really is the man, then we will be surprised when it's announced. Sylvester McCoy remains a ball of energy, bouncing off the walls and allowing his free thinking mind to twist and turn through 180 degrees and back again while Nicola Bryant is in limbo recovering from a back injury but still managed to keep us amused.

And all in one of the best convention hotels ever! No really. A word of praise is required for the superbly organised and well-designed Stoke Moathouse, which fulfilled all the convention goers requirements including the need to eat at reasonable prices.

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