Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Speakers, BBC Hacks, Ming and Doctor Who on Radio 4

Radio 4’s flagship is the Today Programme – the pips, the self-satisfied presenters, the ludicrous tangents, everything that makes anyone seriously interested in politics wake up shouting at the radio and want to throttle their wireless in the shower. But while today’s Today is being a prime example over the Speaker, there’s more to the station than that. Between 11 and 12 this morning, I’ll be listening to two quite different programmes: The Age of Ming, on the discrimination against Ming Campbell; and On the Outside, It Looked Like An Old-Fashioned Police Box, celebrating Target’s glorious Doctor Who book range.

Yesterday, I know everyone throughout the land was glued to the various forms of BBC news to find out who was going to be the new Speaker – well, a few dozen of us, anyway – and though the last round was in some ways less exciting than the others, an almighty sigh of relief already having gone up that ‘favourite’ Margaret Beckett had polled disastrously lower than predicted and was out of the running, I was still moderately pleased that John Bercow won. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not a big fan of the man… But, given that I was relatively pro three of the possible Speakers (the one I’d probably have voted for first, as predicted, bombed) and dead against six of the candidates, he at least was the one left in the middle that I was wary of but not implacably opposed to, so by default he’d have been my fourth choice.

For once, the aftermath of something in Parliament was more infuriating than the vote itself. Gordon Brown and Call-Me-Dave Cameron both made very House of Commons speeches: amusing in the way that after-dinner speakers who’ve never done it before are, lavishing praise and the odd barb (echoing each other in their nature, too), full of insincerity and the traditional Thing. Nick Clegg, I was relieved to hear, got a frostier reception by choosing not to be ‘a good House of Commons man’, instead focusing entirely not on appealing to MPs’ traditions or hurt feelings and instead on the need for reform – and how Speaker Bercow would have a fight on his hands, because the Commons isn’t naturally inclined that way.

But while the BBC’s online coverage included more from Nick from the other two – because it’s easier to quote something with a point than waffle – naturally the TV news had the other two… But not a word from him, because now they’re no longer bound by election laws of fair coverage, we don’t exist again. Still worse was Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson, who gave what was even for him an egregiously biased report straight from Conservative Central Office. It was all about how the poor Tories will have trouble with this ‘unknown’ Speaker and he’ll have to work hard to get them to like him. Not a word, as you may have expected, about the key difference between John Bercow and Sir George Young – about a reformer defeating a traditionalist, still less about him doing it by a reasonably large majority across all parties (a majority much bigger than anyone had predicted, suggesting quite a lot of Tories weren’t telling the truth about their votes). And if a Tory Government does come, an independent-minded Tory sounds a pretty good choice for Speaker, rather than a down-the-line well-behaved one, doesn’t it?

This morning’s Today Programme went one better. Not only was Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson giving it the same old schtick, but the programme’s prime slot just after 8.10 in the morning was given to Nadine Dorries. Nadine Dorries?! The minor Tory MP with a relentless drive for self-publicity, the one who’s always lying, cheating, being found guilty and then lying again that she’s been completely exonerated? The one colloquially known as “Mad Nad”? Yes, for some reason, the BBC thought she was the most important politician in the land this morning, spewing out the unrelenting and embittered poison of a very bad loser, and every time we heard her say “This is a factual statement,” the words ‘Honking great falsehood’ may as well have appeared in neon letters a metre high above our radio (hilariously, she called the election of an independent-minded member of her own party with a record of calling for change being elected instead of an anti-reform Etonian baronet who was deeply culpable in getting Parliament into that mess “sticking two fingers up at the British public”. Ms Dorries, l’État c’est ne pas toi). They didn’t even ask her whether her furious vitriol against Mr Bercow was anything to do with him being the main Tory speaker against her (losing) proposals to slash women’s abortion rights, which you might think would occur to a journalist doing their job. Then, for political balance, they had Alan Duncan – a Tory, half-defending a Tory, against a Tory. Good grief. Followed by Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson – a Tory, commenting from a Tory briefing on a Tory who was half-defending a Tory against a Tory.

It’s good to know the BBC represent views all across the political spectrums.

Hopefully, then, my faith in the channel will be rekindled at 11 this morning, when Robert Orchard is due to tell “the story of Sir Menzies Campbell’s battle to shake off media claims that he was too old for the job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Robert asks how far it is acceptable for journalists to poke fun at someone on the grounds of age?” Well, better late than never, I suppose; apparently it takes about a year and a half to produce journalists’ crocodile tears (see the section “Leadership and the Media” in this piece from after the media forced Ming out, and try to ignore the rest). Actually, The Age of Ming might have me shouting at the radio as well…

Thank goodness, then, for something that should be really worth listening to. The Age of Ming is followed at 11.30am by On the Outside it Looked Like an Old Fashioned Police Box. Here’s what the Radio Times has to say:
“Back in the days before VHS, let alone DVD, the Doctor Who novelisations were the only way a fan could commit the Time Lord’s adventures to memory [mostly right, but have they not heard of nightmares?]. With a child’s big-budget imagination filling in for wobbly sets and monsters, the books became a bestselling phenomenon for publisher Target. Here, Mark Gatiss wallows in some paperback nostalgia as he pays tribute to such authors as Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and Philip Hinchcliffe [surely Ian Marter] - writers who taught many (thanks to the Who house style) the meaning of the words “capacious”, “crotchety” and “bohemian”, and ended up shaping a whole generation of young readers.”
I learned to read on Target Books, and have written reviews both of whole bunches at a time and individual stories, so I’ll certainly be glued to the set and hoping they don’t make a mess of it. As BBC Audiobooks have now started putting out complete readings on CD – among the best releases so far are Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, Anneke Wills’ reading of my first ever book, and the rather lovely three-book boxed set Travels in Time and Space – I hope to hear clips of some of those readings coming up in the programme…

For your other viewing pleasure, you might like to try tuning in to ITV4 today at 10.50am – or 2.55 this afternoon, it’s the same episode – for The Prisoner in Dance of the Dead, arguably the best of the series. In some ways, it’s a good one for beginners; by our reckoning, despite always being broadcast eighth, in the running order that makes the most sense (key word: “most”) it’s the second one. On the other hand, it’s one of the barking mad ones, though some way from the most barking mad (key word…).

Patrick McGoohan is terrific in it, but the show’s stolen by Mary Morris, by a long way my favourite Number 2: small, elfin, but utterly dominant – one of the few who gives the impression she knows what’s actually going on rather than just being a jumped-up prisoner herself. You’ll get brain control, disillusioned spies, spooky cats, flirty maids and washed-up bodies on the beach… Then it gets stranger. The climax involves a change of identity for the body, Number 6 unwittingly adopting his own fancy dress, and a carnival that becomes a court staged as a cabaret, featuring a grotesque twist and ending in mob hysteria. It’s a surreal and high-concept episode, teetering on but not quite yet completely mad. That it’s played with such conviction by such superb actors makes it all rather threatening, and compelling fun. It’s even got music from The Tomb of the Cybermen in it, too.

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Shamefully, I stole away to my own private Target collection this evening to revist "The Horror of Fang Rock". Classic.

The joy of the paperback series was that it captured the essence of the TV series, whilst most books could be devoured in, say, 45minutes.

I spent far too much time as a teenager trying to hunt down out-of-print first edition Dr Who Target stories - Dr Who and the Doomsday Weapon foiled me for years, despite some fairly desperate ads in the Bristol Evening Post.

I had hoped that my collection would be worth something in a few years time, but Ebay has put paid to that.

Did you ever send away for a Target badge, Alex?
What's shameful about reading Horror of Fang Rock? It's quite a good one (if you were reading the novelisation of Time and the Rani... ;-) ).

I remember the first Who book that I read in an hour, aged about 6, but after that usually took my time to savour them - on re-reading, at least. First time, I'd tear through them at eager speed. I remember hunting down the gaps in my collection, too...

I never received a Target badge - saving the special ones issued for Telos' 'The Target Book' - but I'm not entirely sure I didn't send off for one... I think I write off to the company at some point, anyway, as I have a feeling I won a book in their prize draw. Odd that the book is now much less collectable than the freebie badge.
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