Red, White and Who – Book Preview

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For many British Doctor Who fans, when considering America’s relationship with our favourite programme it’s the 1980’s which immediately springs to mind. That was the decade in which the show exploded in popularity across the US (in relative terms anyway) and whilst British fandom was beginning to turn on itself, becoming increasingly bitter and negative, in America there appeared to be only single-minded love for this newly discovered programme.

There was plenty of money too, as the stars of the programme quickly discovered. The leap from the fledgling and low-scale British convention circuit to the all-expenses paid, air-conditioned hotel experience of the American dream wasn’t lost on anybody. This helps to explain why just about anybody who was anybody in the Who world elected to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the programme at a massive American convention.

As Gary Russell explains in his brief, but amusing forward, this was one of the reasons why British fans regarded their American counterparts with jaundiced eyes. The fact that they also got The Five Doctors two days earlier than us simply rubbed salt into already bitter wounds. And then there’s the term Whovian ….

If you want to irritate an old-school British Doctor Who fan, just refer to them as a Whovian. It works every time. Coined by American fans back in the eighties, the new series has now brought this unlovely term back into common usage (something which continually irks me I have to admit, but then I’m an old-school British Doctor Who fan).

However, the story of Doctor Who in America began well before the 1980’s and continues right up to the current day, meaning that this mammoth book (704 pages, including 130 pages of appendixes) doesn’t leave any stones unturned in order to present us with the full picture.

I’ve had the chance to peruse several sample chapters from the book and what I’ve read has impressed me.  For example, whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that Doctor Who debuted on American television in the early 1970’s (with a package of Jon Pertwee stories) I wasn’t aware that the first faint flickers of interest in the series had occurred long before that.

In the mid 1960’s these mainly consisted of newspaper reports which took an amused look back over the pond during the period when Britain was gripped by Dalekmania.  For some American commentators there was plainly the fear that the Daleks might, following the Beatles, be the spearhead of another British invasion (something which filled certain writers with dread!)  An enthusiastic, if somewhat inaccurate, article from Famous Monsters of Filmland from 1965 is another early example of Doctor Who reporting in the US (these early chapters feature a plethora of fascinating press clippings and promotional material – both for the Dalek movies and the early television sales – which adds considerable extra value to the insightful text).

Chapter Eight – Love and Monsters – covers the PSB pledge drives as well as demonstrating early examples of fan-power.  This is another interesting topic for non-Americans – most of us have probably seen footage from various pledge drives over the years, but exactly how they worked (and the likelihood that money pledged for Doctor Who might not even go towards purchasing that series) was again another revelation.  I also loved Gail Bennett’s remembrance of John Nathan-Turner.   In the early eighties JN-T was, even in the UK, very much a fan’s producer, but it seems that he found greater acceptance in the US.  The notion of JN-T “holding court” at a convention with a group of fans in a hot tub sounds typical of the man, for good or for ill.

Chapter Ten – Doctor Who in Bits – discusses the way that American fans took to the brave new world of the internet whilst Chapter Fourteen – Creativity: Trippingly on the Tongue – exhumes another half-forgotten relic from the history of American Who.  John Ostrander’s stage-play The Inheritors of Time created a certain amount of interest in the mid eighties (not least for the fact that an American Doctor had been cast) but due to a lack of funds it was never mounted.  Ostrander teases the reader with a few hints about what the play contained, although he remains tight-lipped about many of the details (even after all these years it appears he hasn’t given up hope of resurrecting it).

Towards the end of the book, Chapter Twenty – It Couldn’t Have Happened to a More Deserving Fellow – examines the way that the series, in the Matt Smith era, really began to find a foothold in the public consciousness.  Which was a far cry from 2005, when American fans were frustrated that no broadcaster had picked up the Christopher Eccleston series.

Other chapters promise to cover Doctor Who’s first successful invasion, thanks to Tom Baker and Howard Da Silva (although possibly Da Silva’s help – via a series of narrations, designed to educate the American viewer about the series – was more of a hindrance).  As might be expected, the fan experience – via conventions and creative works – also looks to be covered in depth.

The sample chapters suggests that Red, White and Who will be the last word on this topic.  Although the list of authors – Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, Robert Warnock, Janine Fennick and John Lavalie – is a lengthy one, their voices seem to blend together seamlessly.

It’s available for pre-order here and whilst it isn’t cheap at $49.99, it does run to a hefty 704 pages and contains 600 images.  So whilst it’s true that the cost may be a little off-putting for some, what I’ve seen of it so far indicates that it’s no cheap cash in.  This looks to be something crafted with love and appreciation and should certainly be worth your consideration.

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Remotely Interesting – Ben Baker (Book Review)

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Who doesn’t love a television quiz?  I certainly do and Ben Baker’s third television quiz-book, Remotely Interesting, manages to entertainingly deliver as even this grizzled television watcher discovered some interesting new nuggets of information (the original title for Goodness Gracious Me, for example).

There’s plenty of variety across the many different rounds.  Eight Word TV Tango sees popular programmes boiled down to an eight word description (“Soft and septuagenarian soil-securers bumble for Britain”) whilst Points of Groo digs out letters sent to the Radio Times, TV Times and Look-In, challenging the reader to guess the programme under discussion.  Sadly (or possibly impressively) I did well here, even though the actual letters were new to me.  They all provided fascinating nuggets of social history (as Ben says, it takes a special type of person to write into a publication in order to proffer their opinion)

Belong in a Presidential Tweet is another entertaining section as Donald Trump (warning, Fake Trump) offers his own unique Twitter-styled take on popular programmes.  Theme from a Hummer Place (challenging you to identity popular television themes from every fourth word is listed) is a simple, but ingenious, idea.  “Don’t, beat, drum, right, not, some, born, of, come, nothing”.  Hmm, I’ll come back to that one.

Another fruitful area for quizzing are the lists of ten facts on various topics (five true, five false) scattered throughout the book.  How can you not love a book which asks you to ponder whether popular-ish Simpsons character Cletus (aka “the slack jawed yokel”) has children called Incest, Q*Bert and Stabbed In Jail?

Although I like to pride myself on my knowledge of television trivia, thanks to Remotely Interesting I now know many more useless factoids than I did before, which makes it a book that informs as well as entertains.  With over fifty sections and a wide variety of questions, it certainly has something for everyone.

As Ben explains on his blog.  “There’s rounds about robots, catchphrases, The Beatles on TV, theme tunes, live programmes, Netflix and the online revolution, game shows, spin-offs, remakes, famous mothers, kids shows, booze, radio transfers, foreigners, Great Telly Years (1969, 1990, 1982 and 1977) and a bunch of Christmas stuff for good measure! The suggested age range is anything from 18 to 65, and probably beyond! Its accessible but challenging where it needs to be with lots of speciality rounds for all the family”.

Remotely Interesting comes warmly recommended.  Further information can be found here.

Based on the Popular Television Serial – Free Doctor Who ebook available for download

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Based on the Popular Television Serial, a Doctor Who novelisations guide, is a free ebook from Paul Smith of Wonderful Books, available to download from this link –

http://www.wonderfulbook.co.uk/basedon/

It’s an incredibly impressive resource, with a wealth of facts and trivia for all the titles (such as the reprint history of each book, print runs, foreign editions, audiobook adaptations, etc).  Well worth a look.

The World At War by Taylor Downing (BFI TV Classics) – Book Review

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In his introduction, Downing writes that –

“The World At War is unique in factual television.  Forty years after its first transmission it is as popular, possibly even more popular, than it was when first shown.  Factual channels that were not in existence when the series was made eagerly compete to show it today.  This is as true in the US and in many other major television markets, as it is in the UK.  No other factual series can claim this.”

The stature and enduring appeal of The World At War makes it an ideal programme to merit an entry in the BFI’s Film & TV Classics series.  Each book offers a concise, well-written overview of its subject as although Downing’s book is only 180 pages, it manages quite effectively to describe the factors that enabled Thames Television to undertake what was an expensive, time-consuming and potentially very risky programme.

When The World At War entered production in 1971, there hadn’t been a major British television documentary series produced about WW2.  The BBC had been mulling over  various ideas for some time but hadn’t made any firm commitments.  And Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1, was of the opinion that since the BBC had only recently launched colour television, a lengthy documentary series featuring mainly black and white footage wouldn’t be a good idea.

Over at Thames, there was more interest in the idea and the return to power of the Conservatives in 1970 was a key factor in kick-starting the production of The World At War.  Under the previous Labour government, all the ITV companies were required to pay a hefty Levy to the government for the privilege of operating an independent television licence.  The Conservatives substantially reduced the amount of the Levy, which immediately freed up substantial funds which could be put into new programming.

Jeremy Isaacs, an experienced programme-maker at both the BBC and ITV, knew that the reduction of the Levy meant that the time was right to make the series.  The speed at which it was green-lit was remarkable and it’s impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening today.  Within twenty-four hours the Managing Director of Thames, Howard Thomas, had agreed and the wheels started to move.

In retrospect this was a big risk, as the Thames board hadn’t been consulted and neither had the other ITV regions.  At this time, the dozen or so ITV regions all had to agree to network their programmes, so if the other regions had decided not to take The World At War then it would have been a major blow.  Twenty-six prime-time slots devoted to a WW2 documentary was a substantial undertaking, but Thames were happy to leave thoughts such as scheduling to a later date.

The first thing that Isaacs needed was to get a major figure onboard as a historical consultant.  Dr Noble Frankland, Director of the Imperial War Museum was an obvious choice, but he had not enjoyed the experience of working with the BBC a decade earlier on their WW1 series The Great War.

Frankland felt that on far too many occasions The Great War had used archive footage incorrectly by failing to distinguish when it had been reconstructed or faked.  He was heartened to learn that Isaacs shared his desire to be rigorous with the use of archive footage and happily agreed to work as the consultant on the series.

Taylor Downing deftly examines the various production processes that over the course of the next three years were responsible for bringing the twenty-six episodes into existence.

Several different directors worked on individual programmes and they all brought something different to the subjects tackled.  The availability of footage and interviewees also affected each episode, so that some featured only scant footage and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and vice-versa.

Downing also discusses the role played by composer Carl Davis and narrator Laurence Olivier.  Olivier and Davis contributed to all twenty-six episodes and so they helped to give a unity to the overall series.  The inclusion of a major figure like Olivier was deemed essential by Thames’ management, and was somewhat against the wishes of Isaacs, and Downing feels that his mannered delivery is something that now dates the series.  I’d disagree with this as Olivier’s narration, for me, tends to always be spot on – and his narration is only used sparsely, as generally either the pictures or the eye witnesses are used to tell the story.

Also examined by Downing is the style of documentary that The World At War was and its enduring legacy.  Whilst, he concedes, it was out of date almost as soon as it was first broadcast (the revelations of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, came to light just too late to be used) the programme’s main themes and its use of first-hand testimonies means that it remains a series that is still able to resonate with audiences today.

Episode 20, Genocide, which documents the terrible events of the Holocaust, is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was forty years ago, but the impact of both the footage and the eye-witnesses from both sides remain undimmed.  Many episodes of The World At War are outstanding, but surely none more so than this one.

Downing concedes that the series isn’t perfect, as although it presented a more global picture of the war than had previously been seen, there are still omissions – China and Poland, for example, are barely mentioned.

Overall, Downing’s book provides the reader with a clear overview and is the perfect companion to this landmark British documentary series.

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Avengers by Michael Richardson (Book Review)

coverRunning for most of the 1960’s, The Avengers transformed itself from a humble domestic series shot on VT to a glossy all-film vehicle that enjoyed a successful run on American network television.

Whilst there have been a number of books about the series previously published, there has never been any which have discussed the production history of the programme in any great depth, until this one.

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Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee

This has clearly been a labour of love for Michael Richardson as years of research and writing has finally been distilled into a heavyweight tome – clocking in at an impressive 810 pages.

Honor Blackman
Honor Blackman

The first section of the book is devoted to an indepth production history of the original series and The New Avengers, season by season and story by story. There’s plenty of information that was new to me, and Richardson has made use of all the available production paperwork to paint as full a picture as could be expected. Rewrites, proposed storylines from various writers which were never made, network feedback, production wrangles, etc all help to illuminate the production process.

Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg

The later sections of the book look at the various spin offs (the 1970’s play, the South African radio series and the 1990’s film amongst others). There’s also a lengthy appendix devoted to listing as much as is known concerning the production filming dates. Not all the paperwork exists, but it’s fascinating reading to look at certain stories and see exactly where and when they were shot – and also how the shooting of various stories overlapped. Of niche interest maybe, but I’m glad it’s been included.

Linda Thorson
Linda Thorson

This is very much a factual book, so if you’re looking for reviews and analysis then this might not be the book for you. It’s more in the line of Andrew Pixley’s writings and probably isn’t something that is necessarily best read from cover to cover – rather it’s an ideal companion to a chronological rewatch of the series.

The paperback is currently retailing for around the £25.00 mark (and given the pagecount I do wonder how long it would be before the spine begins to show evidence of wear and tear). Given this, I went for the much more affordable Kindle option – which is currently selling for around £5.00. The first Kindle edition didn’t have a table of contents and there were also a few typos, but these have now been corrected and all is as it should be.

L-R - Joanna Lumley, Gareth Hunt and Patrick Macnee
L-R – Joanna Lumley, Gareth Hunt and Patrick Macnee

For anybody interested in the production history of The Avengers, this is an essential read.

Telos Publishing, June 2014.