3 February 2017

Good Times! #15 PanoptiCon 97 (1997)

(first published in Faze 1997)

Coventry was demolished during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch afterwards allowing planners the unique opportunity to design its city centre with practical considerations in mind. Paradoxically this has made it now seem less modern than other places. It resembles a bizarre mixture of Alpine village and concrete jungle; everything is in squares and straight lines and the railways station is about a mile from anything else. It’s as if, faced with the freedom to create, the planners instead came up with something very much of its time. More recent attempts to modernise have given the city a weird canopy in its main square and an indoor precinct that looks like every other indoor precinct. The only significant old building is the shell of its cathedral. Nestling in one corner of a covered walkway, the Leofric Hotel is an excellent convention venue and even the bar staff, often the most harassed people at an event like thus, cope with good humour as the place fills up with the buzz of a Doctor Who gathering.

Sitting in the bar on either evening you can see how focussed all the activity is; worlds away from the often un- moveable mass audience in the main hall. There is activity everywhere; attendees scurrying back and forth as If hoping to catch as much attention as they can. Some hang on guest's imaginary coat tails while the main babble of organisers always seem louder than anyone else. It's at moments like this when you realise how fandom is held together by personalities and if these people, who are often unfairly derided, were all to stop one day, nothing would ever get done. Likewise there may be millions of guests but only a few have the currency of genuine celebrity and it can be heart sinking when the hall starts to clear because the people on stage cannot compete with those signing autographs. And, unless the guests are being inspired the audience remains less
involved than at most public events though the sheer edifice that two whole days of watching and listening represents is an exhausting challenge for even the most dedicated fanatic; a concert or film is over in 2 or 3 hours but you can't really expect this crowd to be hollering for about 20 hours worth of presentations. I can vividly recall my first convention which was such a bewildering experience that it never seemed more than a blur.

The main guest this weekend was Tom Baker who presently seems fascinated with irons! He tells of frequent visits to shops to ogle them and of a frisky old woman who has taken a liking to him. Now it doesn’t in the end matter whether this story is true or not because Tom is an excellent raconteur whose tales can be unlikely but are told with enough conviction to carry the audience along. He paints a vivid picture- one anecdote sees him skulking in his garden to confront burglars and you can picture every moment of it. When asked who he liked working with the most on the programme he replied, “Me!”.  Still in his shabby mac and with that enigmatic paper bag in tow he did an hour on stage and three hours signing autographs.
Apart from Tom, there was a great line up to hold our attention not least of which were Sylv and Soph whose double act is now honed to such a degree that they can ad lib in unison to amusing effect. They take questions on the move, scampering around the hall, even clambering over seats and the effect is of a much needed charge of energy towards the end of the event. lt also sets you thinking about how each of the surviving Doctors works in the convention setting. Tom and Sylvester are the most like their on screen personas though Tom has now taken on the mantle of elder statesman: he could actually play a different, older incarnation these days and be quite different. Sylv is if anything more eccentric in real life than he was on screen but through this scattershot approach there are moments you notice just how sharp he is. 
The main hall at the Leofric Hotel, Coventry. Edgar Sponge was on stage when this photo was taken.

Also present were Peter Davison and Colin Baker. Notice how it seems wrong to call them Pete and Col! They haven't, quite endeared themselves to us as much. Peter Davison managed to extricate himself from the comment he made on 'The Doctors" video (the "crap” thing he was talking about wasn't the show but last minute takes) but he seems as uncertain of quite how much he really liked the series though in the company of Mark Strickson and Sarah Sutton he seemed relaxed enough. They were quite lively actually; Mark always manages to inject a light hearted air to matters and he even admitted he wished he'd stayed for Ionger in the series. Both of them seemed to not be quite as dedicated to acting as they had been when they were younger and also emphasised the difficulties of the profession. As for Colin Baker he seemed more subdued this time and yet retains the quick wit that would have served him well had he persuaded a legal career. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with the way he seems rather sidelined at present as time has been cruel to his era and
whichever way you look at it the prospect of re- evaluation of any of his stories, save perhaps his Dalek one, as re discovered classics is remote. (Future John- Most intrigued though by Terrance Dicks’ recent comment in DWM that he could have made Colin B a great Doctor).

The bias towards front of camera people that has prevailed at events this decade (and writers seems totally forgotten) was assuaged a little by the appearance of John Nathan Turner and also the return of the once ubiquitous Mat Irvine while Mike Tucker was on hand to blow up a Dalek. JNT remains a serious, frowning figure for most of the time as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Any malice that may once have been directed at him in convention halls of the past has long since dissipated but, while he may be having a great time, he looks as if he's still wary that old foes will crawl from the woodwork. At least he's dropped the pretence of not remembering anything that he came up with a few years back; his answers showed he probably remembers everything.
Nick Courtney was on fine form. He's so Brig like now that he seems to be in charge of everything. He brings a focus to his panels and made several appearances even managing to keep Peter Miles' peculiar ramblings from going off at too much of a tangent. Nick is now the President of the DWAS, an honoury post it's true but one suspects he could probably run the Society if he wished! Lis Sladen is another plain speaking guest and is quite unlike Sarah and one gets the impression she wouldn’t have run away from the monsters in real life but whopped them in the face! Both she and Sarah Sutton talked about their daughters' reaction to the show.

Other highlights of the weekend included DWM's Saturday night entertainment, Michael Sheard's unflagging promotion of his book, Jacqueline Pearce's laugh, the silly but fun 'Invisible Enemy` as the featured story and the willingness of most of the guests to mingle with attendees. At the end there was a presentation to Andrew Beech who's kept PanoptiCon going through recent years.

As this event marked the 20th anniversary of DWAS cons it seems appropriate to try to place PanoptiCon into context. Like a lot of other things that the DWAS did first there have been criticisms that PanotiCon hasn't changed enough and has never really gone in for the sort of  innovations and new spins later events have. Yet each year PanoptiCon can guarantee at least 300 registrations before anyone knows who the guests may be and this is proof enough that people have had a good time at a previous one and want to return. (Future John: It was the Glastonbury of Doctor Who fandom). Only the now finished Manopticons have come close to inspiring such long term loyally. One suspects that when all the others have packed up PanopticCon will still be the annual event that brings together fans in a simple but effective manner each year.        
PS From Future John: Unfortunately the Leofric Hotel closed in 2013 and has been turned into student accommodation. I wonder if the students are haunted by the monsters that stalked the site?

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