05 January, 2009

The Eleventh Doctor

“Hello, Paul? It’s Ben from Radio Live here. I’ve just spotted the news about Doctor Who. I'm wondering if you would talk to Jemma on our show tomorrow morning about it.”

That was the phone call I received yesterday, and as a result at 6:55am this morning I was on air talking about Doctor Who. I couldn’t help thinking that, ten years on, history was repeating itself. When the news broke about the return of the missing episode in January 1999 I was hounded by the television radio and print media.

But Radio Live wasn't calling about a missing episode. The news was that the BBC had just announced the casting of the Eleventh Doctor. Even though I’d only discovered the identity of the actor myself less than an hour before that phone call, I agreed to the interview.

The casting of the Doctor had taken place in secrecy, as these things do, fuelling a media frenzy in the UK ever since 29 October 2008 when Tenth Doctor David Tennant publically announced his resignation live on television whilst accepting the National Television Award (for Outstanding Drama Performance). It’s a measure of just how massive Doctor Who is these days that speculation flooded the UK news media.

Fan discussion forums were just as busy, endlessly debating the merits of such supposed contenders as Paterson Joseph, David Morrissey, Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Nesbitt among many others. Billie Piper was even mooted as a strong contender, which seems absurd – not I hasten to add because of her gender, but because having been so strongly identified in the series as Rose Tyler, having her play the Doctor just simply would have been way too confusing.

Betting agencies soon got in on the act, with updated lists of their odds widely reported. It’s perhaps instructional to note for future casting speculation that they were well off the mark; the actor awarded the role didn’t even appear in Betfair’s top 20 picks, just hours before the announcement (which leads me to wonder if he was tempted to put a wager on himself; that could have been a nice little earner!).

The announcement was made on Doctor Who Confidential, a BBC television documentary screened in the UK on Saturday evening. I downloaded it Sunday morning while staying well clear of the rest of the internet, least I spoil it for myself. Rochelle and I then sat down and watched the special in the early afternoon, seeing for the first time Matt Smith, the man who will be the Eleventh Doctor.

At just twenty-six year old, Matt Smith is the youngest of the eleven Doctor actors, but only a few years younger than Peter Davison was when he accepted the part of the Fifth Doctor (he was 29). Apparently the producers were not particularly looking for a young man when they began the casting process, but the final decision to go with someone so youthful must surely have been guided by such factors as the ability to cope with the gruelling recording schedule (which could easily wear out an older actor); and also to appeal to the series’ huge audience of children (I’m sure Matt Smith will look more appealing on the covers of the Doctor Who Adventures magazine than, say, James Nesbitt).

I’m not familiar with any of Matt Smith's roles and didn’t recognise his face or his name (though as I’ve watched The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and part of Ruby in the Smoke – in both of which he starred opposite Billie Piper – I realise that I must have seen him before). I like the idea that the BBC has gone with a virtual unknown. I think some of the Doctors, and Peter Davison most of all, suffered from strong public association with prior roles (Davison was already well-known as veterinarian Tristan Farnon from All Creatures Great and Small).

I like the fact too that Matt Smith has very slightly unusual facial features, including a high forehead and a prominent chin. Looking a little bit odd ought to be a plus factor for the Doctor. Tom Baker for example had a rather distinctive appearance (bulging eyes, huge bushy hair, too many teeth) which all helped him to define the part as his own. In his interview he waggled his fingers very expressively while talking, which immediately struck me as very 'Doctorish', and something I'd be keen to see him carry over into his performance.

It’s likely to be a year and a half before we first get to see Matt Smith playing the Doctor on television, but I for one am looking forward to see what he does with the role in 2010.

03 January, 2009

The Lion's Roar

This morning I received a text message from my old friend Neil Lambess wishing me a happy tenth anniversary.

It was ten years ago today that Neil phoned me to ask if I'd meet him later that day.

That was, for me, the beginning of a whirlwind of events that earned us a place in Doctor Who history books. Neil had contacted Auckland film collector Bruce Grenville, who apparently had a missing Doctor Who episode 16mm film print in his possession. Bruce agreed that Neil and I could come around to his Grey Lynn flat and view it on the evening of Sunday 3 January 1999.

The missing episodes are the Doctor Who equivalent of the holy grail; film prints and videotapes junked and destroyed by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s in the belief that no one would ever miss them. This was in the days before repeat screenings were commonplace and home video was unheard of.

Bruce had the first episode of a 1965 story called The Crusade. The individual episode was called The Lion. It was the only known surviving copy in existence.

My own contribution to the discovery was to negotiate for the loan of the film print. The BBC wanted to borrow it long enough to clean up the film and make copies. I communicated with the BBC's restoration team and persuaded the collector to loan the film. I was nervous that at any moment the negotiations could have fallen through, and I'll never forget the moment I walked back to my car with the film safely clutched under my arm.

For one evening I was in possession of perhaps what was - at that moment - the rarest, most coveted Doctor Who item in existence. Here's a photo of me taken that evening, clutching the film.

(It's a sign of the changing times that whilst those shelves behind me are still in the same position in my study, these days they're filled with DVDs rather than videotapes...)

I despatched the film to the BBC's Doctor Who restoration teamin London by secure FedEx courier the following morning.

These days, the episode can be viewed on the BBC DVD Lost in Time. In addition to the episode, the DVD contains an interview with myself, Neil and Bruce Grenville. Our contribution to Doctor Who is recorded for posterity.

A decade on from that historic find, Neil and I remain very proud of our achievement. Neil - thanks for the memories, my friend. Isn't it time we found another one?

The full story of the film's discovery can be read online here.