12 March 2017

Good Times! #20 Blue Box 4 and Battlefield 6 2001

Blue Box 4(first published in Fringeworld 2001)
Bristol is not Mars but for the country's beleaguered public transport system it may as well be. Why else would I have to board the 9.13 train (itself a journey up to town from where I live) a full 24 hours before the event began? Arriving at 12.30, I had to wait two hours to meet Neil Hutchings from his London train and, after exploring the city for a while, the moment came to find the venue. Most conventions are within a stone's throw of a town or city centre but the Aztec Hotel is approximately 15 miles away in a bleak, deserted industrial park served by one bus; the only option as a taxi fare would have been prohibitive. Tallying all this up with the registration fee for the weekend, £45 and the (admittedly very favourable for a 4 star hotel) £30 per night room fees, something like £125 has been spent before a single person asks Wendy Padbury what its like in space. The real bone cruncher, however, comes as it gradually becomes clear that the Aztec holds a monopoly on all food and drink in the area. There is a lovely country pub opposite owned by them which has marginally lower prices, but check these out - a pot of tea £2.50. Sandwiches £6.95, buffet £10. Any money saved on the room rates is soon clawed back because there is nowhere else to eat or drink; even the alcohol is higher than London prices. So, let's face it, overpriced photos of Sylvester gurning with a stuffed ferret are the least of our worries!That said the Aztec is an excellent hotel full of wooden floors, beams, low ceilings and faux Tudor decoration. The staff are tremendously helpful and friendly more so than in any convention hotel I've been in. Hopefully they get a fair cut of all that cash flowing in. 

The event itself was low key and personal- no phalanx of cables taped to the carpets nor armies of stewards marshalling queues. The stage was a platform and spotlights were conspicuous by their absence. With a modest attendance of under 150 people there was an air of a country tea party to proceedings, aided by the presence of classical music drifting around the corridors. Proceedings were presented by Simon Gerrard, who proved to be an excellent host, drawing the very best from the guests and stimulating some of the most interesting interviews seen on a convention stage for years.

Inevitably those celebs who still attend cons have a generally positive outlook about the series; calls for it's return are not just crowd pleasing rhetoric but borne from warm memories of their experiences and they are all anxious to appear on Big Finish audios. Increasingly, they are actors from another era though some have survived better than others have. People like Colin Baker and Peter Davison continue to work regularly, others such as Mark Strickson and Wendy Padbury have thrived in non-acting areas of the industry. Others still are attempting to carry on by optimism alone; John Levene chasing the American dream after twelve years or Sarah Sutton returning to a very different acting world after a break. The insecurity of their profession has made them pragmatic and philosophical and Doctor Who provides a reassuring security for them. From being events where there was a barrier between the stars and the fans, we are now all increasingly like a 'family'.

As if to emphasise this, the place was full of babies and kids - the next generation of fandom? Autograph sessions, once the bane of conventions as they clogged the schedules, have now taken their place as the equal of interviews in importance for attendees. This further breaks down the barriers and makes the whole thing more of a shared experience. Ten years ago had Wendy Padbury wanted to borrow an ashtray, a minion would have swiped one and fans would have swooned. Now she asks apologetically and you say 'sure, ok' as if she was your Auntie Wendy. There is no place for cynics at conventions now because they are pure again. Just like the early days when fans were slack jawed and starry eyed, except that now we're all part of the Doctor Who extended family. And, in the end, this can only be a good thing. 
Peter Davison - urbane, chatty, happy. Despite a terrible cold, he signed autographs all morning.

Mark Strickson - lively, enthusiastic. Now freelance after years of 7 day working weeks he's looking forward to a break but will still be working on his successful nature programmes. Plus he said that it was a Who connection that got him involved in them in the first place.

Colin Baker- eloquent, loquacious and complained that people always mention his weight in convention reviews. Oops ..

Deborah Watling - cheeky, saucy with a laugh straight out of 'Carry On'. She seems bewildered by technology and appears to have a minder with her at all times.

Wendy Padbury - old button nose is back! A mere 18 months after 'retiring' from conventions, Wends has reformed with the original line up and may be back from time to time. Really, she just needed a bit of a break. She's a theatrical agent these days and Messrs C Baker and Strickson are amongst her clients.

Anneke Wills - spiritual, centred and likely to look at things from a different perspective. After some traumatic incidents in her life she says she has no fear now and when she paints can somehow communicate with the subject even if they are no longer with us. You may scoff but wouldn't we all like to be able to see things that way?

Mary Tamm - grand, theatrical, warm. Apparently, Tom was going to leave after the Key To Time season but stayed on when he thought she was staying. But then she left anyway!

Sylvester McCoy - scattershot, never finishes a sentence but if you follow the trail you realise how much he has to say. It is odd that the most eccentric of the guests expressed the strongest political beliefs.

Sophie Aldred - content, bubbly and debuting little Adam who stole the show as he decided to travel from one side of the stage to the other.

John Levene - loud, lewd, Hollywood. Swings between eloquence and waffle in a sentence and tells simple, but funny, jokes. The audience loved him, but he seemed to be from another planet really.

Mike Tucker - the only behind the camera guest who showed us how guns work and how silly the BBC is these days.

Carole Anne Ford - didn't get much of a look in and couldn't remember much either but after 38 years is that surprising? Now works as a vocal coach.

Sarah Sutton - normal, honest, realistic. Acting since childhood, she took a break and is now trying to break back in. Knows S Club 7 songs thanks to her IO-year-old daughter. 


There was a karaoke on the Sunday night with truly appalling versions of 'Bat Out Of Hell' and 'Over The Rainbow' belted out by attendees. Guests fared better though if Mark Strickson offers to sing at your party, a polite 'no' is probably the best reply.

K9 was in evidence trundling about and controlled by Andrew Beech but it was the non-speaking version. Sadly it wasn't the non -speaking version of Andrew Beech!

The dealer's attic featured a host of Dalek Rolykins and Big Finish audios. The four or five stalls all seemed to be selling identical merchandise so one wonders how much business they actually did? And nobody knows what a Rolykin is.

Unusually there was no convention badge which had to be worn at all times. Instead a laminate pass was given out on showing your ticket. Nobody even asked to see the pass but it makes a nifty
souvenir. On the other hand, the hotel’s isolated locale made the likelihood of a member of the public walking in off the street minimal.

There was a treasure hunt on the Saturday that spanned such an area that only people with cars could enter. 

Battlefield 6 (first published in Fringeworld 2001)

Out of my hotel room window dozens of pine trees reach for the sky. In the branches of one of them a couple of squirrels scamper up, down and around. Their business could be simply play or it could be a task of unknown complexity that humans cannot understand. Perhaps my reason for being here would be equally incomprehensible to most. I'm in Coventry for another Doctor Who convention and as its Easter I get to stay in an expensive hotel at half price. Perhaps it's the warm Spring weather but I can't help noticing that the city looks more appealing than it has in the past. As if the sight of playful squirrels were not enough, the route down towards the centre takes in a bizarre garden whose owner has placed giant sized Alice in Wonderland figures at each corner. When I see a poster advertising a DJ sporting the unlikely moniker of Corvin Dalek I wonder if the city has become a permanent, bizarre haunt for fans. 
Whocons have been held here for over a decade now; first the DWAS had some PanoptiCons here (one memorably concluding under the giant canopy outside) and more recently most of the Battlefield events have utilised the same venue. The Leofric Hotel can therefore probably boast the largest collection of Doctor Who celebs to have passed through its doors since Television Centre's heyday. This weekend however two of the biggest draws, Tom and Lalla, are no shows and attendance is down on past events. Coming a few weeks after the cancellation of a convention set to feature the debut of Paul McGann, due to poor ticket sales, does this mean that Whocons are in state of terminal decline? In the main hall, the organisers seemed determined to soldier on, starting each panel with a pounding variation of the theme music and a light show; all a bit too much by bleary Sunday morning. And how many times can we listen to that Enigma album between panels as we wait? How long is a piece of string? 
Yet perhaps the more representative experience of the event was witnessing both Sylvester McCoy and John Nathan- Turner in wheelchairs, which seemed to sum up the state of things in the Doctor Who world right now. (Future John – This review was written and published just before JNT’s death; this turned out to be his last convention appearance) The more people like Big Finish or Dan Freedman try to whoop us up with their 'never been better' flourishes the more I'm reminded of that old adage about protesting too much. If the franchise really was in rude health, would we need to be reminded every ten minutes?

If I needed any proof to back up my feelings check out the guests. Apart from Yee Jee Tso who brought his own transatlantic energy to bear, the rule of thumb was that the further back they delved the more interesting they were. Peter Purves talked breathlessly about 1950s and 60s rep - a play a week no less - and the early days of production on the show when they would record an episode in an hour, playing as live. He even said how he though Billy H was nice to him, even though he saw him being nasty to others. Steven Cambden came armed with slides and clips of the 70s 'golden age'. Watching the show being put together with painstaking sluggishness gave an insight into just what was achieved. We saw models and a grumpy Pertwee in 'Claws' and 'Death to the Daleks', witnessed an ultra rare Roger Delgado waiting for his cue clip and we saw cine camera footage of Tom, Lalla and co filming 'Shada', including an in costume Doctor lighting a fag!
Louise Jameson talked about Leela, Tenko and her politics whilst Gary Downie's behind the scenes look at 'The Two Doctors' and 'Silver Nemesis' answered all the questions except why they never bothered to get a decent script to film with. Even confined to his seat, Sylvester was lively enough though this year no match for Colin Baker's sparkling wit and self mockery which has reached a thoroughly entertaining level now. A good interview this, allowing Col to delve back into his past and tell a few more stories about Michael Grade. On a promo visit to the States, he finds himself sitting next to Grade's wife; "You’re Doctor Who aren't you?" she asks to which he informs her how he's just been sacked and who was responsible!
With no new production to foist on us Saturday evening was left to an amusing 'Generation Game' thing wherein two teams - Terry Molloy and costume designer Jean Steward (whose earlier panel was stymied by the fact she couldn't remember anything!) against Yee Jee Tso and Nick Courtney. They had to make little model Daleks, ice cakes, identify monster heads and tap dance! Despite Yee Jee's enthusiasm and Nick's knowledge, it was Terry and Jean who won though the prize was only an Easter Egg; holidays in the Caribbean have been won for less effort! This was followed by Peter Purves' first ever stand up routine.

As ever, the event was well organised (how come 10 years ago with loads of stewards, events were far more ramshackle than they are now?) and the hotel, opened specially for proceedings, had laid on tea and sandwiches in UNIT tradition. Yet I did get the feeling that the Doctor Who world is shrinking - a hastily organised BBV panel (another injured guest; Terry Walsh was unable to make it at all and sadly died a few days later) provoked enquires about old monsters being used on their productions. 
This is really the key isn't it? Fans do not want to move on at the expense of the past. They want Doctor Who locked in amber ready to be reconstructed exactly as it was. That's why they hated the TV Movie. That's why they wallow in (admittedly professionally produced) fan led merchandise and spin offs. Looking around the hallways of the Leofric, I don't know anybody here now and I'm not sure if this is a good or a bad thing but seeing how locked into it they all are I wonder how worthwhile it all is.

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