22 November 2013

An Adventure in Time and Space vs Verity Lambert, 28

a subjective review of the recent film for television by the editor of The Terrible Zodin (so don't blame anyone else for it)

Back when I'd heard about An Adventure in Time and Space being written by Mark Gatiss, I had bittersweet feelings, because I knew this TV version would hog all the glory and everyone would think I had ripped it off to write Verity Lambert, 28, even though I knew in my heart my audio play version would be just as good and at least as original (haha, if you can't big yourself up, who else will?). AAiTaS was quite enjoyable, and I'm glad to report that though it shared many things in common with VL28, it's quite obvious to say that AAiTaS is William Hartnell's story and VL28 is, obviously, Verity Lambert's story. It's obviously taken advantage of Jessica Carney's moving and interesting biography of her grandfather, William Hartnell, which is no bad thing at all—in fact, I do hope someone (ME!) writes a biopic of Hartnell that covers the period leading up to Doctor Who, in particular his earliest years through his 30s, which are quite fascinating.

AAiTaS is also a big cheese-fest, and in that sense it feels more Christmas-y to me than many a Doctor Who Christmas Special. This is due in part to the syrupy music by Edmund Butt which goes for overkill many-a-time when it should be calming the hell down. Despite the inherent sadness in the story they've chosen to tell (which, let's face it, hits a Who fan in the core of his or her heart; calculated tugging-o'-the-heartstrings), much of the programme has a light touch. Certainly there are dramatic moments, but, aside from the Hartnell conflicts, things waft along with hardly an obstacle (aside from a few racist and sexist minor characters). However, I, too, wafted along with a glazy-eyed smile most of the time—it was entertainment. And mostly true, too—at least from the research I've done.

I liked that there was a pally relationship envisioned between Verity and Waris Hussein, something in my gut I felt existed, too, and indeed Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan, respectively, were exactly as I had imagined the characters in my mind when I wrote them. Indeed, there are two scenes from AAiTaS that really stick out because, if I didn't know better, I would have said Mark Gatiss was reading my script from over my shoulder. These are the party scene that introduces us to both Verity and Jackie Hill (Jemma Powell), similar in a lot of ways to the party scene I had written in VL28. Amazingly similar—down to lines of dialogue like “We've got to stick this out together”--was the scene at the pub in which Verity and Waris bond to fight the Establishment. Granted, Gatiss' Verity reacts a lot more lightheartedly to hints that Waris is gay than my Verity did. I enjoyed their camaraderie in AAiTaS and could sense that the programme-makers didn't want this partnership to end after “Marco Polo” either.

I loved all the scenes set in the Hartnells' house, which looked exactly like I pictured it (though that must be due to Carney's photos in the book). I loved that Carney herself was there with her Sanpaw, and I loved the way the relationship with Heather Hartnell was established. Okay, for all the cheese, I did get a tear in my eye when Hartnell broke down with an “I don't want to go.” David Bradley made an excellent Hartnell. I do hope Carney's book is getting back in print because she is going to make a mint after this programme.

As did VL28, AAiTaS had to make judicious choices about cutting down its production team cast. It foregrounded Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant) and her relationship with Hartnell (as did VL28), though it's a shame we didn't get to see this relationship extended with Maureen O'Brien. Jeff Rawle was great fun as Mervyn Pinfield, the voice of reason (“My dear lady”), though where on Earth was Donald Wilson? And for that matter, David Whitaker? As Verity herself said in AAiTaS, so many people were there for Doctor Who's birth—flying credits due to Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire, and Bernard Lodge—that not everyone could get crammed in. However, upon one thing I think we can agree: Brian Cox's was a star turn as Sydney Newman. And yes, he did say Verity was full of “piss and vinegar,” he did take them to lunch at a Chinese restaurant and tell them to shoot the pilot again, he did call up Verity and ask her what she knew about children. And Rex Tucker, at least from Verity's recollections, was a real jerk; and the sprinklers did go off in Studio D Lime Grove if it got too hot; Peter Brachacki did drag his feet on designing the TARDIS interior (though, to be fair, that was a brilliant scene). So, as far as I can tell, Gatiss didn't have much to invent. The story is a good one, and it's there to begin with. But certainly the framing narrative and the ability to condense four years into a few moments was a good way to summarize the heart of the Hartnell story.

There were some excellent moments from director Terry McDonogh: gazing up inside the Dalek shell will no doubt have delighted many, as will the Daleks on Westminster Bridge and the many views of BBC Television Centre. Playful blink-and-you'll-miss-them touches abounded, “Tenth Planet” Cybermen and Menoptera smoking being but a few. It was great fun to see the cameos (Carole Ann Ford, Anneke Wills, Jean Marsh, Nicholas Briggs, Tony Robinson, though I confess I completely missed the William Russell one—shame on me!). And certainly the BBC knows how to recreate the BBC from 1963 as only the BBC can! Definitely going to need to do some Verity Lambert paper dolls; as she said herself, the woman could shop for England! And oh yes, managed to figure out that the farewell party to Verity was filmed in the Tivoli Ballroom, near where I live.

Though I get the drift of trying to describe visually and in a few seconds the way Hartnell said he knew Doctor Who would go on forever, Matt Smith making a guest appearance was like so much cheese as to make a cheese-vomit sandwich. IMHO. And the Patrick Troughton bits felt very alien; that's a whole different story, surely? (A dramatisation of Michael Troughton's biography would make a bombshell companion piece of AaiTaS.)

I hope it doesn't seem like sour grapes that I keep bringing up the parallels to VL28 (I'm only human, after all). I guess I should take it as a compliment that Gatiss and I had many similar ideas of how to tell this story. Time will tell (haha!) if this dramatisation cloys with age, but I found it to be an ego-caressing (mine!) enjoyable piece of entertainment.