Friday Writing Experiment No. 38: Adventures In Time And Space

Last night (and we nearly missed it) we caught the fantastic tv film Adventures In Time And Space, about the creation fifty years ago of Dr Who. The writer, Mark Gatiss, did a very affectionate piece about the making of it in yesterday’s Telegraph, and he’s also made a lovely short about the film too (and what else other than genius might we expect from anyone involved with the very brilliant League of Gentlemen).

I had maybe expected something designed for today’s fanboys and girls, and there was plenty of that, for sure. But what was perhaps more powerful was the genuine pathos the film established, particularly in the depiction by David Bradley of William Hartnell, who played the first Doctor. I also loved the portraits of producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein breaking glass ceilings, and I’d forgotten that the first transmission went out the day after Kennedy’s assassination (did Lambert really insist on it being repeated the following week?!). It was a real nostalgia trip to a golden age of television at the BBC. It reminded me of a recent walk along the Thames in Hammersmith, when we stumbled across the former Lime Grove studios. It also reminded me of Dr Who annuals.

It also took me back to the age of four, when Daleks ruled in black and white and terror bolted me to the sofa in Cherry Tree Cottage. Back then, we didn’t have the immediate gratification of watching next week’s episode over on More4 or catching up on what we missed on iPlayer; we had to wait for next Saturday, part of the nation’s (or even Terry Nation’s) collective hivemind.

As I type this, Dr Who is covered on a story on the ten o’clock news on BBC1, soon to be followed by the last two Doctor Whos on the sofa with Graham Norton, while simultaneously on BBC2 the Culture Show is doing a special, which among other things shows Valerie Singleton creating chocolate Daleks out of Walnut Whips and Smarties (talk about nostalgia). I love it that the BBC is so shameless in plugging one of its treasures, but also that it’s being acknowledged as a Google doodle.

I’ve not always been the greatest of fans of the revived versions, for some reason I’ve not been able to put my finger on. The plots, story ingredients, and performers are strong, after all. Maybe I am a bit stick in the mud, and maybe I’ve found these productions a bit too run-around and chasey and shouty? And sometimes a bit mawkish in a soapy kind of way (though maybe that is a generational thing – hard-faced oldster speaking here, reflecting on how Coronation Street now feels more Hollyoaks than Alan Bennett). And their special effects are (mostly) too good, and thus suffer in comparison with the beloved creakiness of those primitive yet very striking sets of the 60s and 70s, greatly enhanced by over-the-top music.

Taking these thoughts further, something that occurred to me last night was that the low-budget productions back then were served well by things considered constraints: the close focus on those stagey sets, the overwrought mannerisms hamming up clunky dialogue, that music, those cliffhangers. And no colour back at the start, but no loss in that, really. And most haunting of all, that theme tune made on a shoestring in the Radiophonic Workshop by Delia Derbyshire. (Who could invent a name like that?) Even the Tardis was a constraint in itself – an exercise in expansiveness. We knew that set was some flimsy, wobbly cellophane confection, but it was a thing of wonder. We were forced to use our imaginations, and our emotional investment spilled over. There could be great tension within the limits of these productions.

For this week’s writing experiment: Spin some magic within a very tight constraint you’ve created for yourself. Maybe a very confined space, and/or a very short span of time. You could, perhaps, create a time-travelling spaceship-in-disguise of your own, but if science fiction is not your genre perhaps you can compress lots of meaningful action into one small room that contains far more than its appearance might suggest. A small room could also be a small and very tightly organised but allusive stanza of poetry.

And now, too, we hear that the Clangers are coming back! Eek. I can’t take it! Long live the BBC.

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