13 February 2017

Good Times! #16 PanoptiCon 98 (1998)

(first published in Faze 1998)

Have you noticed how Doctor Who gives great clips? More and more, the only really new things we can see are artfully collated sequences with suitably powerful music that give the impression of wonder. Conventions too are increasingly about celebrating 'bits' of the show. Close on a decade after the last regular story, time inevitably moves on and while hard core fans and, increasingly, professional writers delve into ever more trivial and miniscule territory the people who made and appeared in the show recall less and less detail and much of what they do remember is anecdotal and samey. Thus the success or otherwise of guests depends increasingly on their strength of personality. Some things don't change though; if it's PanoptiCon, it must be the Leofric Hotel in Coventry, a city that this very weekend celebrated the arrival of Sunday shopping with Morris dancing and clangey rock groups. Yes, that's the Sunday shopping everywhere else started two years or more ago but at least we can look forward to a right knees up, in honour of Labour's election win, next year! 

An event of two halves really; a cracking Saturday and a cabaret that bordered on surreal gave way to an under par Sunday but at least the hotel wasn't like a furnace this year. Kicking off day one, Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman were full of beans; Lisa's charm alone circumnavigates the fact that for a lot of us Benny is not a real character from the show but Lisa did at least appear in 'Survival' and this panel made for a light start to a noisy morning.

Given a huge reception Peter Purves turned out to be the opposite of his grouchy appearance a few years ago at ManoptiCon, getting into the spirit of things more and was the first guest in quite a while to actually admit he got on OK with Bill Hartnell even if he did witness the man's darker side. An anecdote; Bill was at Pete's the night when Kenneth Tynan became the first person to say "f***" on British television; Bill was appalled; "How dare he use such f***ing language!" Pete also bemoaned the lack of character development in Steven; perhaps if he'd played him like Morton Dill (the clip of which was shown) he'd have enjoyed it more (nor sure we would!). He also talked of Blue Peter of course denying any acrimony with John Noakes but admitting that the latter was quite unlike his TV persona in real life. Colin Baker was in fine form too; he's moving rapidly into story mode beloved of Messrs Pertwee and T Baker developing basic anecdotes into lengthy jokes, the best of which is his memory of 'Arc of Infinity' and his helmet, Esmerelda.

Like a hurricane Brian Blessed arrived on stage and spent the next 40 minutes shouting and bellowing, pacing about and telling some quite bawdy stories. From a detached point of view he cuts a slightly ludricous figure and his tale telling lacks the breadth and charm of Tom but he had the lively audience whooping and clapping as the event appeared to climax a day and a half too soon. Apart from the fact that he was in 'Trial' and is very famous, the purpose of his presence remained unanswered but he did give out the most detailed info about the next Star Wars movie heard to that date and was full of praise for the 'Mindwarp' script.

After a lunch break to recover from the Blessed Effect, the afternoon opened with John Nathan- Turner and Andrew Cartmel. This turned out to be one of the best of the event's panels with Cartmel particularly lucid about his aims and achievements, putting down once and for all the oft stated opinion that he didn't know or care about the essence of the show. Because his vision was not allowed to be completed we missed out on the full picture as he said he'd have written a story himself. He also brought the often taciturn JNT out of himself a bit and both here and in Sunday's 'Ghost Light' panel, the former producer showed his depth of television production knowledge that makes something of a mockery of those 'looking out of the window' jibes.
The Radiophonic Workshop panel was a bold idea but it didn't quite work; Delia Derbyshire, bless her, seemed too over emotional to remember anything, Roger Limb gamely tried to inject some interest but the biggest surprise was Malcolm Clarke. Judging from his bizarre 'Sea Devils' themes, I was expecting him to be an eccentric type but he seems more like a quiet librarian although he did say that his incredible score for the story meant that the Workshop didn't get to do the incidental music again for years!

Next up Bob Baker and Paul Tams introduced the show reel for their prospective 'K9' series which drew laughs from the crowd but looked quite slick with our fave metal mutt underwater, floating around in space or covered in heavy weapons. A bonus was a Tom narration- the way he says "top dog" is brill! Shame the organisers had chosen 'Claws of Axos' (Bob & Dave's most awkward albeit orange story) to show during the event. Terrance Dicks and Chris Boucher were a tad disappointing; the former didn't really have anything new to talk about and the latter needed a livelier interviewer to draw him out (and seemed to recall more Blake's 7 than Who). Finally, Nick Courtney and Richard Franklin were a suitably warm duo to close the day with a panel that ranged from Nick's book to Richard's political beliefs on the future of Europe.

Oh my giddy Aunt!! I am watching former production assistant Gary Downie and he is dancing while sporting that big cloak that Colin Baker wore in his Dalek story underneath which he is removing items of clothing. I've only had one drink so it can't be a hallucination; it must be the cabaret. Now that word was outlawed in the early 90s but tales of happenings in America and a lack of new game shows to do Doctor Who versions of has allowed the cabaret to return to these shores. On paper it sounds rather embarrassing but in a hall full of fans wanting to have a good time, the format seemed to work though how many of the assembled would admit to enjoying it the next morning is another matter!

So, we got to see Wendy Padbury reading a poem, Bruce Purchase having his poem 'corrected' by Nick Courtney, while JNT did some magic with assistant Lisa Bowerman. Funniest item was Sylvester McCoy's hilarious routine with a piece of elastic (yes, really!) and Andrew Beech while Gary Downie's dancing was not even quite the most surreal moment. That was left to Richard Franklin who ended up in a garish red dress and wig singing about Sgt Benton. Mmm, perhaps you just had to be there!

Sunday lacked the stealth of Saturday's packed schedule; in fact great swathes of space were filled by
reshowing old interviews on the screen. So, for a diversion, you could always attend one of the many
seminars and screenings in the other room and I saw one of these; Steve Cole and Steve Roberts talking informally about the BBC Who output of late. Unlike some people's rather incessant plugging on the main stage, Steve seems to have retained his fans' love of the show which combined with his professional skills has kept Doctor Who looking fresh and relevant in the wider marketplace; no mean feat. While some of his release choices are odd he has been able to produce quality packages like 'The Ice Warriors' tape despite the falling sales (down to around 10,000 though the TV Movie did four times as well). This discussion proved very interesting and we finally solved the mystery of why the dreaded double packs continue when a 6 parter will fit onto 1 tape. It's the retailers who insist on it; they won't stock higher priced single tapes.
Back in the hall, Wendy Padbury revealed she gave up acting after appearing in an episode of The Bill and also went into detail about the 'Seven Keys To Doomsday 'stage play and about how it would open with her and the male companion sitting in the audience and rushing down to the stage to help the Doctor as the performance began. She neglected to mention Clawrantulars though; some things are probably best left unmentioned! 'Ghost Light' was the subject of an absorbing panel that really did let us in on some of the feel of making a TV show; John Nathan Turner, Sophie Aldred, Gary Downie, Mike Tucker and Mark Ayres discussed the story in between chunks of the first episode and once it got going they proved to have some interesting observations; Sophie was able to paint a picture of what it was like on set, Mark was fairly critical of his own music (largely because director Alan Wareing had not been specific enough about his requirements) while JNT and Gary D. gave an insight into production. As well as elaborating on the effects (and his design for the husks in the cellar) Mike also played a tape that showed just how good yet comparatively inexpensive FX in Doctor Who would be achieved today. Some stunning CGI saw the TARDIS spinning into a colourful vortex, floating in space and in front of an exploding planet. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred were their usual vibrant selves and the event closed with Mary Tamm and Bruce Purchase both of whom were surprisingly restrained after Bruce' s loud entrance complete with his own Polyphase Avatron.
Save for a zillion thank you's and yet more stage hogging from Andrew Beech that was it  All told, a refreshingly lively event though how many cabarets I could sit through I'm not too sure .....

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