The Blog

Carrying the Torch -Doctor Who at 50

Through my nursery and primary school years the good Doctor will be my truest and most reliable friend. He will teach me how to try and disarm situations with a funny story, or a joke or a random distraction, which in turn will help me manage situations in which I am bullied or when I ultimately become a teacher.

It's 1972, a bitterly cold Autumn afternoon in my home in Buckinghamshire. I'm four years old and in the absence of any central heating I am drying my hair using the heat from the open fire. The air is heady with the smell of recently toasted crumpets; my Mum and Dad are in the room drinking tea behind me and world feels a sure and certain place.

My father reaches out to turn on our crumbling black and white television set and eventually, accompanied by a strange wheezing and groaning sound it gradually flares into reluctant life. Acrid tendrils of scorched dust begin to suffocate the sweet aroma of burning logs.

After ensuring that the recent rigorous towelling has not disconnected my head from my shoulders I sit still, breathing in the warm air. As I do so, a new strange electronic sound fills the air and a swirling mass of clouds begins to fill the television screen before me. The combined impact of the music (is this music?) and hypnotic images draw me closer to the screen and as a white haired man appears amongst the clouds my Father's voice says 'I think you might like this programme, but it can be a bit scary'.

After a few all too brief seconds the electronic assault on my senses ends, forever imprinted on my psyche and life journey. I watch transfixed as a tall, beaky nosed man with a frilly shirt and an air of great dignity walks into a blue wardrobe marked 'Police Box' and emerges into what to the most exciting place not on earth to be. I like the company of this man, he gets angry when things are bad, but he doesn't seem to pick up a gun or kill anyone for the sake of it.

Within hours I am hooked and I am drawing circular TARDIS 'roundels' on my bedroom wallpaper. As a four year old who already knows (although I lack the vocabulary to express it) that I am 'the other' because I fancy bearded men on the telly and not pretty women, I feel a huge sense of relief; the Doctor man also appears to be 'other' -not exactly inhabiting the same space as me, yet still existing in an alternative one with value. An outsider who feels different, kind and loving to their female friends and who would rather face down fear with a smile and a sweet than a punch.

This is hugely significant and life affirming for me and through my nursery and primary school years the good Doctor will be my truest and most reliable friend. He will teach me how to try and disarm situations with a funny story, or a joke or a random distraction, which in turn will help me manage situations in which I am bullied or when I ultimately become a teacher. He will show me that just because someone has eight arms and is green, that we shouldn't immediately fear them for it.

Then joy of joy, books with my Doctor on the front started to appear in WH Smiths in Buckingham, not only the now passed over grey haired beaky nosed one and the new toothy bug-eyed curly haired one, but also a new mysterious and slightly sinister looking white haired old man and a mop topped fellow whose face and eyes I studied and try to emulate at length, leading to a few 'interesting' school photos. These books, then published by Target books provided me with a life long love of reading, a hugely widened vocabulary and inspired in me a love of writing that has continued until today. These books inspired me to research Richard the Lionheart, The Aztecs, different forms of electricity, nuclear war and insect life around the world. In every respect my learning and developing sense of self were influenced and enhanced by this kind, brave and child-like fellow from another world, with whom I felt much in common.

Later in the 70s, the safe haven of my home life would fracture as my parents sadly parted and my sense of self as an other that would generally be rejected by society and in particular by people in places of power and worship became profound. Self esteem, self loathing began to fester and I harboured a deep and all pervading suspicion that I was indeed the alien.

It was during this uniquely vulnerable time that I wrote to Dr Who actress Louise Jameson, then playing the character of leather clad savage Leela, 'something to keep the Dad's interested' went the press coverage, but for me Leela and Louise became far more significant. Just as my world was falling apart around me, I wrote to Louise after seeing her on Swap Shop. To my utmost surprise and joy she wrote back to me, many times. A correspondence grew and some of my happiest childhood memories are of sitting with my dad recording funny stories in silly voices on tape and singing songs for Louise to listen to. Her replies were always caring, always sincere and absolutely helped me keep my head above the current that was threatening to pull me under. I still have the letters and now through my anti-homophobia project young people Tweet and write to me to share their personal stories of being bullied. However busy or stressed I am, I try to remember my young 9 year old self opening that first letter from Louise. Louise later crossed my path again-just as my father was dying and she gave me sound advice; she is a wonderful caring soul.

As a teenager a growing interest in music and men collided with the later excesses of the Tom Baker era and this temporarily refocussed my alliegances to sterile, shiny American sci-fi which seemed to make me cooler and more popular with my peers. I did however, always kept a secret special place in my heart for that outsider from Gallifrey, sometimes sneaking a copy of Doctor Who Weekly out of the local newsagents as if it were an adult magazine to avoid mockery and yet more bullying.

In 1986 how surprised I was to find that legendary Dr Who writer Robert Holmes drank in my local pub and many a happy hour was then spent in the pub talking about his various creations such as the plastic Autons, the Sontarans and the fact that Gallifray was contrary to popular perception, actually pronounced Gall-if- free (stress the 'if').

Bob Holmes also advised me how to get my Equity Card ('you should act' he said-which I then did) and he bemoaned in colourful language the state of Dr Who in the 1980s under the stewardship of John Nathan Turner. Ironically it was John Nathan Turner (and his partner Gary Downie) who invited me to London 'for a chat about how to get into acting' an experience which soon ended in humiliation in a Shepherds Bush public house as I recently recounted in Richard Marson's fascinating well balanced and moving book 'The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner'.

In Autumn 1989 I sat in with my first real partner David (who also loved the show thank goodness) and watched in growing unease as Sylvester Mcoy and Sophie Aldred walked off into the sunset. The traditional announcement that 'Dr Who will return next year' went unspoken.

I recall turning to David in the firelight and saying 'that's it- that is the end'.

Dr Who was broken and looking back now I think I actually felt, in some way, bereft. One of the constants, part of my internal structure had left me. It felt like my oldest friend, my most accepting friend had well, died.

But that was silly, geeky,uncool, naff.

In the intervening years I struggled to keep my life and relationships afloat as the double damage of separated parents and sustained homophobic bullying gradually poisoned my demished sense of self. Occasionally the Dr would flicker onto my television in the form of anniversaries and reflective programmes, but the tone was always mocking and the tenses firmly past. Then we had for one brief moment the wonderful Paul McGann in a beautifully directed misfire. Finally the writing seemed to be scrawling itself across the headstone and then the mourning after really kicked in.

By 2003 I had a new life, free from some of the baggage of my childhood and I was living and working in London as class-teacher. I was having a fun time in London with newly found gay friends, but many of us kept our dark secrets, the appalling truth that we had grown up as believers. One day after reading a Metro article about robots I randomly drew a Dalek on the board. To my horror not one of my pupils knew what it was.

That was the day I almost gave up hope.

Except that very night, after a few pints in Soho, I got the last tube home. I was alone in the carriage, except for a grey haired but very present and charasmatic man who I recognised from pictures in my Dr Who Monster book as a child; sat opposite me was actor William Russell who played science teacher Ian Chesterton in the very first episode of Dr Who back in 1963 (watch it-it is televisual brilliance and 2013 school kids just... get it). I raised a smile and we awkwardly met eyes for a moment; as the train arrived at my stop my inner child (or maybe three pints of lager) emerged and I said 'get home safe Mr Chesterton.' Mr Russell smiled warmly and said simply 'thank you, the same to you.'

It was, a small but special moment.

Several weeks later I bumped into the much loved and missed Elisabeth Sladen in Hammersmith; when I said a bashful 'hello' she beamed at me like a long lost friend, took my arm and asked me to walk along the Embankment for a few moments.

Fiction and real life colliding.

Miraculously, just two years later, back in my class-room, I was faced with children buzzing with excitement following the transmission of the first episode of new Dr Who.Children who would soon be writing the words 'Bad Wolf' on their school books and in true Ecclestone style declaring everything to be 'fantasic'. They even pretended to be plastic shop dummies coming alive, using pencils as hand guns, just as I had done back in the playground back in Maids Moreton in the 70s. The very same plastic shop dummies that my old mate Bob had created.

It is now 2013 and the children of the 60s and 70s now working in television have turned my child-hood friend from Gallifey into a world beating, immortal fictional legend that I am delighted to say will outlive all of us. I see so many children in schools who, because of their love of this silly old show, want to act, write, record music, sing or become scientists.

Some of them want to run and write the show; the future starts here, watch it Moffat.

Over my 45 years on planet earth I have witnessed some terrible acts of violence, prejudice and hate. But from out of this fifty year old family show (started by the collective thoughts of Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, Tony Coburn, Waris Hussein, Mervyn Pinfield,Delia Derbyshire and of course William Hartnell) something truly unique was born and from it shines joy, positivity, creativity and inspiration for children and adults of all ages.

Thank you to everyone who has worked on the show over the decades behind and in front of cameras. But most of all thank you to Louise, to Lis, Bob, to William Russell and to every single soul that does something creative or great just because Tom Baker once faced down an alien with a jelly baby or because Patrick Troughton once made it very clear that terrible things must be challenged.

Like it or not, that blue box is around for the long -haul and that is.....fantastic!

Happy Birthday old friend. Enjoy the party!