The Big Red Button

Christmas Invasion 13

A great big threatening button which must not be pressed under any circumstances, am I right? Let me guess. It’s some sort of control matrix, hm? Hold on, what’s feeding it? And what have we got here? Blood? tastes it. Yep, definitely blood. Human blood. A positive. With just a dash of iron. But that means… blood control! Blood control! Aw! I haven’t seen blood control for years! You’re controlling all the A positives. Which leaves us with a great big stinking problem. Because I really don’t know who I am. I don’t know when to stop.

The Christmas Invasion is probably my favourite Doctor Who episode ever. It’s so full of hope, confidence, positivity and humour. Oh, and David Tennant, which always helps. The kind of telly that cheers  you up, and boy do we need a bit of that right now.

Funnily enough, I found it popping into my head yesterday when I read a Matthew Parris piece in the Times yesterday (I would link to it, but it’s probably back behind a paywall). He pointed out that actually Article 50, which actually sets into motion the process of Britain leaving the EU, will have to be invoked by Parliament which, I think most of us would agree, is barely in a fit state to keep the country ticking over, let alone deal with a decision of that magnitude at present.

Of course, the people have spoken, and turned out to be idiots in at least 50% of cases (I’m allowing a little wiggle room for those who actually….y’know…..thought about Brexit before deciding they would take their country back. I could find it in my heart to respect, and in some cases, even like those people).

It was my son who pointed out in a phone call, just before both of us came close to tears, that while delivering his so-called victory speech, Boris Johnson looked white as a sheet. Might just have been lack of sleep, I suppose, but it also occurred to me that that is the look of a man locked in a room with a Big Red Button and the people outside (looking, I can imagine, a little like David Tennant 10 years ago, in his dressing gown and jim-jams and that expression on his face which could turn on a sixpence from jocular pop-cultural references to ice cold, dangerous fury) saying, “Well, go on then. You’ve had your cheap voodoo. Worked like a dream, didn’t it? So, are you gonna press it?”

And suddenly, it hits him, what would actually happen if that finger went down on said red button. We would probably need the Doctor to sort it out, and unfortunately he’s turned out to be a fictional character.

Most big-name politicians are gamblers at heart. They tend to be remembered for their last and worst decisions, the gambles that didn’t pay off. With Blair it was Iraq. Once the IRA start bombing us again, maybe a few of us with long memories will remember how hard he worked to broker the Good Friday Agreement that has now been so casually imperilled by people who aren’t racists, honestly, they just have a problem with brown people living next door.

Cameron threw the dice once too often, and yesterday saw where that gets you. He bowed out with dignity and at least the semblance of statesmanship, I’ll grant him that.

What are we left with? Boris and the Big Red Button, that’s more or less it.

And already the Cornish are saying, “Excuse me, we are still going to…er….get all that money the EU used to give us, aren’t we? Because you promised….” The first of many such hopeless pleas, no doubt. And Farage didn’t even wait for the final result before he started backpeddling on the notorious money that would be diverted from greedy Brussels bureaucrats straight into the coffers of the NHS. Turkeys, meet Christmas. A long German word beginning with “S” comes to mind (it was also a rousing number in Avenue Q, that’s the kind of pointless digression the magpie-minded Tenth Doctor would have relished).

I’ve already heard of a couple of people who voted Out and are now having second thoughts. Both intelligent and principled, as a matter of fact. And I wonder, did we just want to strut our stuff a bit, and say, “You just wait until we press the big red button, then you’ll be sorry.” Sounded so good, didn’t it?

A long time ago, my marriage hit a very rocky patch. Things festered and deteriorated until my husband said, “Go on then, leave. Go upstairs now and pack. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

I stayed. And I’ve never regretted it. We raised two fine, clever, decent young people, neither of whom can contemplate a long-term future in in this country any more. Even as my heart breaks a little, I admire them for that.

And meanwhile, the EU waits for the finger to fall that final centimetre, to connect with that BRB and give us the new dawn that we were so sure we wanted.

In that brief distance lies our one and only hope. It isn’t much, but since the TARDIS isn’t at our disposal right now, it’s all we’ve got.

Hopelessly Devoted to Ten

The Fifth Doctor meets the Tenth Doctor.
The Fifth Doctor meets the Tenth Doctor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, my giddy aunt! I had forgotten how much havoc full-on fandom can play with your daily life. Yesterday was a bit of a write-off, devoted mainly to surfing the web for any mention of The Day of the Doctor and experiencing the emotional whiplash of the day after a good party. At least there wasn’t any washing up to do.

It’s rather sobering to realise how easily I could return to the state I was in from July 2006 to July 2008. Yes, the overlap between those dates and the Tenth Doctor’s tenure is no coincidence. My hard-core engagement with Live Journal fandom started after I watched Doomsday and needed somewhere for all those emotions to go. I knew my family would fear for my sanity and roll their eyes if I inflicted it on them.

I held out for about three weeks before I committed fanfic. I couldn’t have felt more ashamed if I’d been caught downloading porn. I seriously wondered what on earth had happened to me. Mercifully, I had the sense not to share that first literary outing with the world, but by Christmas 2006 I was posting regular chapters of a Christmas Invasion fixit that had the Doctor apologising to Harriet Jones and going back to Satellite Five to rescue Jack. I find most of it unreadable now, but the first chapter isn’t bad. Just as well, since one of my oldest RL friends admitted to having read it.

Over the next couple of years I produced thousands of words, 99% featuring my beloved Ten. Only Journey’s End stemmed my flow, and even then I came up with some nice Donna fic. But I never resolved RTD’s train wreck solution to my satisfaction, and in fact I became quite startled by the dark tone that some of my little vignettes took. Particularly the one where Ten sends a message to Jack that he has to sort out his mistake saving Adelaide Brooke et al, and when he opens the TARDIS door Jack pulls a gun, shoots him and says, “That’s for Ianto. Too bad he wasn’t blonde.” Yep, I was feeling nihilistic enough by then to assume that Children of Earth had happened in the same ‘verse and the Doctor had stayed well away for reasons of his own.

I guess RTD does have that effect on you.

Most of my vintage fic had a much lighter tone. In fact, light comedy with a side order of angst became my preferred voice. Like Moffatt, I really didn’t like it when people died. A few of my chapters can still reduce me to tears, particularly the one where a rather battered Ten proposes to Rose after several weeks camping out in the Powell Estate flat just after a reworked Battle of Canary Wharf. I look back and realise that I put so much of my own life and experiences into that scene, particularly the loss of my own widowed mum (like Rose, I was an only child who never knew my father). Going back to read it now, for the first time in years, I’m rather horrified by how much I humanised the Doctor. At the time I couldn’t see how out-of-character that really was.

In a sequel to that tale, I even took them to an AU Gallifrey ruled by an ageing Romana (she cropped up in a lot of my fic, as did Sarah Jane – I liked experienced older women licking Ten into shape and had a lot of fun with it). I had a reunion with the Third Doctor in Sarah Jane’s front garden and was astonished how naturally I slipped into writing Pertwee dialogue – some distant place in my memory must have filed it away, untouched since the 1970s. And I remember writing a fix-it just after Time Crash that involved Five getting Ten and Rose back together. I think that was probably my best.

Probably my mission statement in those creative times was Jane Austen’s line from the end of Mansfield Park: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit these subjects as soon as I can.” The apparently unstoppable flow of stories started to peter out after Journey’s End, but it was the arrival of Eleven that finally ended it. I just couldn’t write him. Simple as that.

Ah, happy days. It wasn’t all bad. I probably wouldn’t have done an MA in Shakespeare Studies if it hadn’t been for David Tennant. (I once sent him a birthday gift of the story of Ten and Rose in Series Two in verse format, paralleling the Proclaimers song, That’s when he told her. I hope he liked it. Surprising how neatly the final line, “He may be a Time Lord but when all is said and done he’s still a bloke,” fitted the original tune).

Seeing Tennant as the Doctor again has brought something into focus for me. A lot of people have an enormous crush on Tennant. I don’t. It’s Ten that I’m hopelessly devoted to, and this weekend brought it all back. And I rather hope it goes away again. My family outed me one Christmas by buying me a life-size stand-up Ten. I was livid. But they had a point. I still think DT is one of the hardest working and probably nicest people in show business, and I wouldn’t have missed his RSC work for the world. But I confess that DVDs of Casanova and Blackpool sit unwatched on my shelves and, worst of all, I have yet to discover Broadchurch. Nope (see how I popped that P?), for me it’s all about Ten. And one day I’ll get over it. Yes, I will get over it. Until that day comes, you continue in your fantasies and I shall, with a little embarrassment, go forward in mine.

Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II
Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.


Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

“Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar…” The wisdom of a windbag

Oliver Ford Davies and Whatshisname in Hamlet, RSC, 2008

If you Google images of the RSC’s 2008 production of Hamlet, your screen will quickly fill up with pictures of David Tennant. You’d have to dig deep to find one of Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. You may not even remember who Polonius is in Shakespeare’s tragedy. He’s that kind of character.

Polonius was Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father, the chief advisor to the ill-fated court of Elsinore and a pompous, irritating old windbag. He got on everybody’s nerves, particularly when he was giving them the benefit of his wisdom and he didn’t know when to shut up. The kind of person most people just want to get out of the way. Just before the interval, Hamlet obliges, albeit unintentionally, by stabbing him through the arras. Serves him right – he was snooping as usual.

And yet, from that moment, everything falls apart. The tragedy that has been threatening goes into top gear and accelerates like a bobsleigh hurtled over a cliff, dragging every character in its wake.

That’s the funny thing about people like Polonius. It’s hard to define what they actually do, but you really miss them when they’ve gone. I’ve never seen that better captured by any actor than by OFD in the 2008 Hamlet. Somehow, the hype surrounding Tennant and Patrick Stewart made his quiet performance all the more telling.

I remembered this when I started reflecting on the problem of justifying the inherited monarchy in general, and the possible reasons behind the present outpouring of affection towards the Queen. Certainly, you could regard the whole business as an offensive luxury, inappropriate in these times of austerity. The thing about Her Majesty (and here I borrow a line from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: the power of introrverts in a world that won’t stop talking) is that she comes from a generation that valued character more than personality. That’s a hard thing to put into words, and it may seem counter-intuitative when the persona of Elizabeth II is so fresh in our minds, but the point is that any idiot can become a celebrity these days. It takes 50 minutes, not 50 years. If the Queen has become a celebrity, it’s because she’s devoted a lifetime to looking outwards, thinking more about the person she’s talking to than about herself, and dressing up and going out to do her duty over and over again when she’d rather be somewhere else.

Interestingly, the point that really brought that home to me in the TV coverage of the Thames Pageant was the little piece about the Royal Yacht Britannia and the special place it had in her heart. At the decommissioning, something I heartedly approved of at the time and would probably support at least in principle even now, she was visibly saddened. You rarely see the Queen’s feelings so clearly displayed. How clearly she came to life yesterday when she got the chance to ride once again on the little launch that used to take her and Prince Philip out to the one place where they felt that they could be themselves. I wouldn’t mind betting that that was the highlight of the whole day for her. Suddenly that national economy, imposed on her at a time when the Royal Family’s standing was at an all-time low, seemed mean-spirited rather than realistic (After all, this was the height of the boom years, when the Blair Government thought nothing of spending a fortune on the interior décor at Portcullis House).

If you asked her, the Queen would probably say that one must do one’s duty and that if Britannia had to go, she had to go. Pampered though she may be in material terms, one can never deny that she is consistent in her values and the process of living them out. Yesterday we saw her pushing her famous stamina to the limit, rather than deprive even one of her subjects, who had come so far and waited so long, of the pleasure of seeing her. She wouldn’t even spoil it for them by sitting down

I do understand the arguments against the monarchy on an intellectual and practical level, but I have a feeling that the Queen is like Polonius. Not flashy, not fashionable, and occasionally irritating in her apparent indifference to popular culture (though that becomes more forgiveable as one ages). Frankly, if popular culture means people like Fearne Cotton and Matt Baker wittering on while she stands in the rain, I prefer the quiet dignity of Her Majesty. And I have a feeling that we might miss her once she’s gone, more than we could ever have imagined.

The BBC has not exactly stabbed her through the arras, but the growing reaction to the intellectual poverty of their coverage of the pageant has certainly struck a nerve, and suggested that it might be smart for them to rethink their attitude to the Royal Family as some kind of The Only Way is Windsor. Their lack of intelligence as they scantily covered the Little Ships of Dunkirk does not contrast well with the determination of this dignified old lady to acknowledge our national debt to them by remaining standing in foul weather as they passed, or her intent, courteous interest in the individual stories of the members of the public she interacts with on her walkabouts. I’m not suggesting that we return to the extreme deference of royal coverage in the 1940s and 1950s, but the fact remained that she was the still heart of a somewhat tawdry circus.

Frankly, the BBC have been absolute idiots to let their obsession with celebrity dominate their coverage of this event. A sentiment I remember hearing often on similar occasions in the past was, “This is what we pay our licence fee for.” Their motto, Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation, is still taken more seriously in many of the world’s trouble spots than it deserves to be. If a morally bankrupt media mogul like Murdoch can do a better job, then something fundamental about our national pride has died. We may think it doesn’t matter right now, but like boring old Polonius, we might miss it when it’s gone. The outcry in the papers this morning suggests that that growth of self-awareness has already started, and might just be enough to prevent the ignorant thrusting of Hamlet’s sword.