Image Credit: Adam Kendrick (All Rights Reserved)
Image Description: Members Of Oxford WhoSoc with the convention’s guests
Adam Kendrick reports from the fifth Bedford Who Charity Con, where guests from the classic to the modern eras of Doctor Who were in attendance
The fifth annual Bedford Who Charity Convention took place on Saturday 13 April at Bedfordshire University Theatre, in aid of Bedford Food Bank. Compared with other Doctor Who conventions, this event is relatively low-key and takes place at a small venue with only a few hundred visitors – enough to fill a theatre, but not so much to feel overwhelmingly crowded. This year’s line-up of guests consisted of Sylvester McCoy (the Seventh Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Janet Fielding (Tegan), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Louise Jameson (Leela), Michael Jayston (the Valeyard) and Mike Tucker (special effects expert and writer). The guests were split into pairs for separate question and answer sessions held throughout the day, while there was plenty of time in-between to walk around and investigate the merchandise stalls selling a wide range of figurines, novelizations, and handcrafted knitted Doctors. In the afternoon, everyone was able to meet all the guests personally, request their autographs, and have photographs taken with them.
The day began with the organiser, Simon Danes, welcoming everyone to the convention, before he was interrupted by a small person wearing a duffle coat and scarf, who was pushing a Dalek onto the stage and spoke with a strong working-class accent. After completing their delivery, they revealed themselves to be none other than Sophie Aldred in disguise! Further sketches were interspersed throughout the day, with Michael and Carole reading an extract from Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks by David Whitaker, a hilarious phone call between the Seventh Doctor and his mother (played by Louise, who reminded Sylvester to “eat five Vervoids a day” and asked him for help with the Matrix router), and a meeting between Ace, Leela, Tegan and Susan at a reunion party for companions (with references to Adric eating up the buffet and the presence of a mysterious yet oddly familiar woman wearing a rainbow top…)
Alongside the humour, there were also the usual mix of panels, with a highlight this year seeing James and Mike Burgess discuss the remake of Mission to the Unknown, which students of the University of Central Lancashire filmed last February. Although we were unable to watch the finished production itself due to plans for an official release, we were still treated to some exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and a news report on BBC North West Tonight.
After a call for 1960s Daleks was sent out on Dalek-owners forums, James and Mike found themselves in a van travelling to Preston in utmost secrecy. They were repeatedly told to keep “Project Dalek” a secret—only for Peter Purves to let the cat out the bag by posting about it on Twitter! They started by recording scenes with the evil plotting delegates, with James playing Beaus while wearing a fancy aircraft helmet. When one of the Dalek operators went into town for lunch and didn’t return in time for recording, Mike climbed inside the Dalek and had his name added to the credits as a result. The best thing about being a Dalek operator, they added, is being able to sit down, wiggle the weapon about and take in your surroundings, from the set to the rest of the cast. They even had a black and white TV monitor screen on which they could see themselves and the production as a whole. As Nicholas Briggs told them, “we’ve all got a Dalek inside of us”, and they look forward to releasing the final product soon.
With the manic enthusiasm of Sylvester McCoy, the calming influence of Sophie Aldred, and the all-knowing Mike Tucker, the Seventh Doctor panel went in all sorts of unexpected directions. Sylvester belied his age by being surprisingly lively and sharp-witted, constantly thinking of wisecracks and bringing chaotic energy to proceedings, and with only Sophie seemingly capable of keeping him in check. At one point, there was even a singalong where the whole theatre sang the smash-hit single Doctorin’ the Tardis, while Sylvester gleefully played his spoons on everything within sight. This spirit extended to his answers, such as how when Sophie’s famous baseball bat moment was brought up, Sylvester insisted that his Doctor was “a kind Doctor who would never smash up a Dalek”, before acknowledging that, okay, maybe he DID trick the Daleks into blowing up their own planet that one time! His astounding endurance and hijinks continued into the audience Q&A session, where upon Sylvester immediately swiped the microphone and went right up into the audience, later followed by Sophie, as they shuffled through the aisles so that fans could ask their questions clearly.
One such question concerned how Sylvester, as a 44-year-old Scotsman from Dunoon, got into the skin of a centuries-year old Time Lord? He described how he remembered Patrick Troughton’s comedic performance in the 1960s, and hence spent his first series playing the Seventh Doctor as an absent-minded professor. After further discussions with Andrew Cartmel, they decided to bring back the mystery of the Time Lord, taking the show on a darker turn. “And then just when things were getting interesting, they cancelled it… Bastards!”
In the brief moments of respite, with Sylvester sitting comfortably, the three discussed the serials they made. They began with Remembrance of the Daleks, recalling how the emergency services turned up on set after they had set off a huge explosion in the arches by Waterloo Station and on arrival, they were confronted with Daleks. It wasn’t any easier away from major transport hubs, with the Dalek ship being full-size, and so having to be lowered into the school playground by crane. There was also more drama for the scene in which the Doctor uses his umbrella to travel down a zipwire from the school’s roof onto the spaceship. While the main shot, you’ll be unsurprised to read, required a stunt double, Sylvester was still needed for a pick-up shot of the landing. This required him to be up on some scaffolding, with a small slide into camera. However, it wasn’t quite big enough, and so the cameraman kept telling him to move back, closer to the edge, with no harness! Fortunately, no one was hurt. Sylvester’s umbrella, however, was used normally while filming Survival in Dorset to protect him from the heat.
Explosions and freak weather conditions
Later in Season Twenty-Five, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy saw the Doctor walk dramatically away from the collapsing psychic circus. Regarding this famous shot, Mike revealed that they were originally going to use a gust of wind, but the production team had ordered the wrong wind machine and couldn’t plug it in. Instead, they decided to use explosives, but forgot to tell Sylvester that the plan had been changed. To his credit, he still walked away from the explosion without flinching, despite his coat being singed by the flames. This was fortunate, as only one take was possible, and so the result looks fantastic, especially as the explosion ended up being larger than expected! Less fortunate, however, was the beautiful model of the psychic circus which had been built and rigged to implode. Frustratingly, someone pressed the wrong button on the camera and ended up recording everything that happened before and after the implosion, but not the implosion itself!
As for their final series, The Curse of Fenric was one of the hardest serials for Mike, Sylvester and Sophie to work on due to the changeable weather in Lulworth Cove. One moment there was bright sunshine, and they would need to arrange artificial rainfall. Then it would start snowing, which had to be hosed away, and then suddenly they would be soaked through from torrential rain. Sophie ended up wearing wellies, which were then painted out in post-production, while Sylvester incorporated a coat into his costume in order to deal with the cold. Despite the dreadful weather, Sophie remembers The Curse of Fenric as her favourite story, because it gave Ace plenty to do.
While the Seventh Doctor would return for the TV movie, this wasn’t the case for Ace. Although Sophie was considered, Philip Segal was unable to think of a way to make her character work with the overall story. There was, of course, another appearance in Dimensions in Time, which Sylvester promptly dismissed as “appalling”, a mishmash of ideas which simply didn’t work.
Ace also had another potential opportunity for a television reappearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures, where there were plans to reintroduce her on Sarah Jane’s doorstep as a successful businesswoman, having founded A Charitable Earth. Sadly, Elisabeth Sladen’s untimely death prevented this, but Sophie has fond memories of her as “the mother of Doctor Who conventions,” who offered advice to other actors on all manner of topics, such as how much to charge for autographs.
Off-screen, the three talked about how they dealt with the recognition from appearing in the country’s most beloved science-fiction television show. Sylvester was already used to fame from appearing in twelve years of children’s television beforehand, but nevertheless suffered from people shouting, “where’s yer TARDIS?” whenever he went cycling. More recently, he was confronted by fans with a life-sized Dalek at a train station while travelling across eastern Europe, after his assistant posted about his travels online. In fact, the only people who didn’t seem to care that he was Doctor Who were his own two sons, who had become hooked on The A Team during the 1985 hiatus and wouldn’t appreciate the significance of their father’s work until the relaunch twenty years later.
Sophie talked about how fellow shoppers would peer into her shopping basket in Tesco. She remembers one occasion where she was approached by a small kid who excitedly announced, “I know who you are—you’re my PE teacher!”
Two guests who were particularly fascinating were Louise Jameson and Janet Fielding, both of whom played companions of the Fourth Doctor. Their panel was a rollercoaster, switching back and forth between darker and lighter topics, but it always engaging throughout.
Louise and Janet started acting from a young age, both playing fairy-tale characters in school plays. For Louise, she was Little Miss Muffet, while Janet played Rapunzel. Despite these early beginnings, neither expected to become actors when they grew up. Louise originally wanted to join the Tiller Girl dance troupe but eventually abandoned her dream at age four. Given plans for a potential relaunch of the troupe, she may yet get her wish! Even after settling on acting, she kept her options open and became an adept touch-typist, in case her acting career didn’t work out. Janet, on the other hand, went to university to become a journalist, but as with many students, she discovered a love of acting during her studies, after appearing in a production of The Miller’s Tale with Geoffrey Rush.
Before moving onto their time in Doctor Who, they talked about how the show had influenced their lives beforehand. Both Louise and Janet were already fans before entering the TARDIS. The Fielding household always watched the show while having tea in the living room, and there would be discussions in the playground about the latest episode. They also discussed the public fascination with the Daleks–huge in the ‘60s but still significant today. Because these squishy creatures are vulnerable inside of their metal shell, they strike out and hate those who are different–this is what makes them monsters, and Robert Shearman’s Dalek received high praise for highlighting this critical aspect. More widely, they pointed out how Doctor Who is a great way to bring up social issues, and the inclusion of dyspraxic characters such as Ryan Sinclair demonstrates that the show is about acceptance and tolerance, no matter what.
There were plenty of anecdotes from filming, with Louise recalling how she nearly a killed a cameraman when she had to throw a real knife in The Robots of Death. Subsequent takes were performed in an empty studio with a rubber prop. She also loved receiving sack-loads of fan mail, except the once she accidentally received a batch for Elisabeth Sladen, which was full of letters asking for Sarah Jane to come back! She discussed how there was friction with Tom Baker during the production of seasons Fourteen and Fifteen, but she emphasised that there was no disrespect between the two and it actually paid off in some ways, as their energy transferred well to the screen. This anecdote has a happy ending as decades later, while recording a DVD commentary together, Tom spontaneously and deeply apologised for his difficult behaviour at the time, which she found very touching.
Janet described how Mawdryn Undead was filmed the day before her wedding, and how it required her to wear make-up which made her look older; she suggested the fact she became prune-like while washing it off might have been an omen of things to come! She also talked about some of her favourite stories, those featuring the Mara (Kinda, Snakedance), which she described as “very empowering” and well-written. She hadn’t been taught how to be possessed by a giant snake in her acting classes, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless! She also discussed leaving Doctor Who, which happened sooner than she would have preferred because the strike-bound BBC wanted to introduce a new companion before Peter Davison left. Hence, Resurrection of the Daleks ends with Tegan suddenly announcing that she had witnessed too much killing and no longer enjoyed travelling with the Doctor. On the other hand, she was pleased that she got to meet the Daleks, saying that makes her a proper companion, but envies that she wasn’t allowed to beat them up with a baseball bat like Ace! She was also critical of the number of companions during her era, immediately responding with “Two” when we asked her, because one is too few and three’s a crowd. She also has a minor gripe against Peter Davison for saying that his favourite serial is The Caves of Androzani, because she didn’t appear in it, hallucinations excluded!
While Janet has since left the acting profession, Louise continues to act as well as write. She discussed being sought by Matt Berry for Toast of London as he is a Who fan himself, mentioning the man dressed as the Fourth Doctor who sits at the bar in the background. She also writes her own comedy, advising the audience that you should write down eight minutes of dialogue, then cut all the non-essential lines until it’s down to two minutes of great material.
Another exciting panel saw Carole Ann Ford, arguably the first Time Lord to appear on our screens as Susan, paired alongside Michael Jayston, who played the Valeyard and by extension the Doctor (sort of!). Simon took them back to when they were in Doctor Who, asking about their experiences and any changes they would have made to their characters.
Carole’s recollection of William Hartnell was that he was “warm, lovely, and sweet”. She recalls how he was convinced that the show would “go on for ever and ever” and she is certain that he would have loved seeing how many fans had turned up for the day. He was a good friend to her, with his best advice being to put some money aside, since actors can be out of work for long periods of time and “you’ll regret spending your money”.
As for the rest of the original TARDIS team, Carole found Jacqueline Hill to be unapproachable and constantly on edge at first. However, it turned out that she was just shy and nervous about the upcoming press conference. William Russell, meanwhile, was “very beautiful”, but always kind and helping her out, especially with finding the right spot to stand so that she would be lit properly. They also bonded over a love of horses and horseracing, with William having ridden horses in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot.
When asked how she would have changed Susan, Carole explained how she wanted to have been “stranger” (more unearthly, perhaps!), much like how she behaved during the unaired pilot, to reinforce the alienness of the character. She therefore much preferred historicals to the futuristic stories, as the latter involved too much screaming. Indeed, such changes might have resulted in Carole staying in the TARDIS for longer, as the lack of variety led to her decision to leave the show. Rather than being an audience surrogate, Carole’s ideal version of Susan would have been enraptured by every alien she met, just like the Tenth Doctor. She would have had a better sense of humour, and a varied wardrobe adorned with trinkets found on all the far-off worlds she visited. Perhaps this was why her favourite serial was Inside the Spaceship (aka The Edge of Destruction), precisely because it allowed her to play Susan differently.
Michael, in contrast, wouldn’t have changed the Valeyard one bit—after all, evil characters are supposed to get away with everything! He recalled how some of the Big Finish productions in which he appeared were better than the television scripts, and especially enjoys He Jests at Scars…, an Unbound audio in which the Valeyard succeeds in becoming the Doctor. He also talked about the three cult TV programmes he had been in: Doctor Who, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Only Fools and Horses, the last of which also has its own conventions. He still harbours some resentment towards Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell for threatening the show—as he stated, Season Twenty-Three was “the trial of the series itself”, not just of the eponymous fictional Time Lord. Nevertheless, his time on the show includes many good memories, with Michael building up a great friendship with Colin Baker, who did the best he could with bad scripts. Finally, Michael talked about his belief about how Doctor Who should always have comedy, praising both Robot of Sherwood and Patrick Troughton, whom he named as his favourite Doctor for having “the most character”.
After all the panels, signings, sketches, and shopping, it was time for a final panel of quickfire questions, which included: what annoys them (while explicitly being told not to mention Brexit!), their favourite place in the world to visit, and whether they collect anything. Janet, who now runs a charity in Ramsgate, said that she was annoyed by cuts to local government; she loves the tropical rainforests of Queensland; and she’s afraid of spiders, mentioning how a new species of trapdoor spider (Euoplos crenatus) had been discovered in Australia the week before (“Oh great, like we needed another one!”). Michael is annoyed by politicians who say, “let me be perfectly clear”, while being a fan of cricket, he likes Trent Bridge Cricket Ground and collecting cricket memorabilia. Louise dislikes lorries who drive too closely and enjoys collecting hearts as well as giving them out—her signature even includes a heart motif Carole claims to never be annoyed by anything and loves the way Jodie says “sorry” in her Yorkshire accent, whom she refers to as “my grandmother”. Finally, Sylvester gets annoyed when people complain about bagpipes and “collects” countries during his travels, while Sophie considers plastic packaging wasteful and prefers the pristine salt marshes of Norfolk.
All the guests were wonderful and it was lovely to meet long-term honorary member Sophie Aldred again after seeing her at last year’s Bedford Who Convention. As representatives of the Oxford Doctor Who Society, we were pleased to offer honorary memberships to all the other guests as well, and I hope to meet them again in the future! I was very pleased to later hear that this year’s event raised a record-breaking total of £8,062 for Bedford Food Bank, and that there are plans to invite stars from the twenty-first century relaunch for 2020! Here’s to Bedford Charity Con Six!
This article was first published in The Tides of Time Special Edition Summer 2019