20 August, 2007

The Real McCoy

I was a little apprehensive in the lead-up to A Day with the Doctor, the one-day Doctor Who convention on Sunday 19 August at the Aotea Centre.

To this day I still have eye-twitch inducing memories of DoctorCon 2003, the last convention I helped organise. That event was marred by shockingly low attendance numbers and an intemperate guest actor. Fortunately this time around everything went without a hitch and it was a pleasure to help out the experienced and very capable husband and wife team of Bill and Adele Geradts, who are the team behind the hugely successful Armageddon conventions.

The convention was made possible by the fact that the Royal Shakespeare Company were on the New Zealand leg of their tour of King Lear and The Seagull, with a few Doctor Who actors in the cast.

Before the celebrity guests arrived, I was the first speaker of the day. I gave a half-hour talk about Doctor Who, the club and TSV. I'd spent the previous week thinking about the talk and put together a powerpoint presentation that worked very well as a visual aid, with the audience impressed by the colourful club logo (which I'd colourised in Photoshop especially for the presentation), and a first glimpse at Alistair Hughes' stunning new colour cover art for the forthcoming TSV 75.

I was delighted to see some old familiar faces in the audience, like former editor Nick Withers whom I hadn't seen in years. There were also many new, young fans of the series in evidence. When I explained that TSv was celebrating its 20th birthday this year and asked how many of those present were not yet born in 1987 quite a few hands went up (I feel very old...) My two nephews - both of whom love Doctor Who (not entirely my doing!) were in the audience, seeing Uncle Paul in a different light. It was especially gratifying to have a number of people - young and old - come up to me afterwards and said how much they'd enjoyed my presentation.

Although Sylvester McCoy was the star attraction, the other two actors, William 'call me Bill' Gaunt and David Weston, also proved popular. A couple of Doctor Who episodes were played before their talk to remind the audience of these actors' appearances in the series. David Weston was hampered a little by the fact that his first role, as Nicholas Muss in the 1966 story The Massacre, no longer exists, and his second as Tharil Biroc in Warriors' Gate sees him heavily made-up so that he's not very recognisable in person. William Gaunt on the otherhand looks exactly, as you might expect, like an older and more distinguished version of the assassin Orcini from Revelation of the Daleks.

Of the two thespians, Gaunt seemed to have a better recollection of his time on the show and delivered some amusing ancedotes, with his exploding bionic leg being a particular highlight. I wanted to ask a question that both men could answer equally, so I prompted them for their memories of working with Graeme Harper, who had served as a production assistant on Warriors' Gate and then as director on Revelation. Gaunt spoke well of Harper, singling him out as a very good television director who kept the cast energised and had a can-do attitude. Weston then responded that he had no recollection at all of Harper - though he did mention that the director - Paul Joyce - was removed from the production (some accounts suggest that Harper filled in for Joyce).

Sylvester McCoy's own talk was later in the day and in contrast to Gaunt and Weston who remained seated, Sylvester moved about the room, clambering past people so that he was holding the microphone for each person as they asked their question. His usual response was a short answer followed by a longer one that sequed into a sometimes familiar well-rehearsed anecdote. Which is to be expected given the huge number of similar events McCoy must have spoken at in the past. For many of those present though this was entirely fresh material and Sylvester's infectious wit and wicked one-liners made it hugely enjoyable.

I asked Sylvester about the rumours that he'd been up for the role of Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. He revealed that it came down to the last two, between himself and Ian Holm, and even though he was very disappointed not to get the part, he has kept in contact with Peter Jackson, and had visited the director at his home with Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) when they arrived in Wellington for King Lear. Jackson, revealed McCoy, is a big fan of Doctor Who, and owns a complete Seventh Doctor costume (that Jackson's kids pester him to dress up in!), including one of the only three surviving original question mark umbrellas made for use in the series. Intriguingly, Sylvester also said that Peter Jackson told him that there is a 'two Doctors' story being made for Series 4, which apparently will feature the Tenth and Fifth Doctors, with Peter Davison reprising his role. Hmm, we'll have to wait and see if that comes to pass...

Chatting to McCoy one-on-one later in the day I learned that in recent years he'd had to start changing his routine to remove language and stories not suitable for younger listeners. Until the new series came back in 2005, McCoy explained, he'd been playing to rooms entirely made up of adult fans. We agreed that it was great to see a new generation coming into fandom and that they were evidently enjoying the stories made long before they were born. I also got to chat to McCoy about the play and his part as the Fool.

The last event of the day was a screening of Battlefield with Sylvester delivering alive commentary, but it was apparent by this time that his energy levels were flagging, despite the organisers plying him with strong coffee. For most of the story he seemed content to just sit and watch along with the audience. No one seemed to mind; the surreal experience of watching a Seventh Doctor story alongside the man himself was a thrill in itself.

All in all, a great day.

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