New Dawn? The 1997 Election at the People’s History Museum

As of this week, it’s election fever! By which I mean I feel sick, nothing around me makes sense and I’m increasingly convinced I’m going to die. It seemed as apt a time as any to visit New Dawn?, an exhibition curated by Professor Steven Fielding for the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s first victory, at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. In the small space it has, it captures a sea change in the nature of political campaigning, as well as one in British political culture.

The pivotal moment of 1st May 1997 is the focus of the exhibition (and the campaign leading up to it), but useful context either side is provided.  Starting with Labour’s electoral low-point of the post-war era in 1983, we’re taken through Neil Kinnock’s modernising project as well, and the two brief years the late John Smith lead the Opposition. We’re treated to election manifestos, posters, leaflets – all giving some hint as to the culture of, and the struggles within, the Labour party of the eighties and early nineties.

Crucially, the paraphernalia from this period, particularly 1992, provides a vital comparison to the 1997 election propaganda. The leap between the two campaigns is stark. Advertising techniques and the concept of big branding really takes over. Look at 1997’s blocky, multi-colour posters, slogans bold and plain:

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Decidedly of the moment. It’s potentially a coincidence how reminiscent they are of Channel 5’s branding, the station having been launched by the Spice Girls only the previous month:

Twenty years on, the nation’s still divided as to whether New Labour, Channel 5 or the Spice Girls gave the emptiest promise. Advertising and the power of a bold image were clearly in mind earlier (the Tories’ 1979 “Labour Isn’t Working” poster being a case in point), but this seems the deepest Labour had dived into those waters to date – and the most successfully.

Another artefact that shows the shifting forms of getting the message out are in the Sun front pages down the years. It’s peculiar to see their “Sun Backs Blair” headline up close, and only a few feet from their Kinnock-bashing 1992 front page (paraphrasing: “we would never tell you how to vote, but…”) and 2009’s abandonment of support. Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch calls up one of many questions that still grips the party today: whether power and principle can ever truly go hand in hand. And it’s a question that pervades the exhibition from the beginning, with pretty much the first case you see dedicated to Blair’s amendment to Clause IV, seen as a rejection of the party’s founding principle of nationalisation. The unending debate remains: when some people felt betrayed, was enough good done to justify it with the power won?

With the space it has, there’s not much the exhibition can do to answer that question definitively. A handful of graphs and clippings show the achievements of New Labour, and a Stop the War poster ably showcases the great stain on its record. But in an exhibition given over to the turning point of 1997, the focus is understandably more on the rise rather than the flight or the fall. 13 years of government warrants further examination, but other hints of the good done in this time can be found not far away. A few metres away in the museum, Never Going Underground, another visiting exhibition, on the progress of LGBT+ rights in Britain shows a timeline of changing legislation and societal attitudes. One significant leap of many ushered in by the Labour government:

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When elections and referendums loom, it seems more important than ever to look back, both to mark our progress and to consider our course.

New Dawn? The 1997 Election can be seen at the People’s History Museum in Manchester until 4th June. Details here.

For further historical goodies and context as a complement to the exhibition, I recommend its Twitter feed, @newdawn1997, for regular newspaper cuttings and party political broadcasts.

You can also find a wealth of material on YouTube if you want to immerse yourself in the surrounding culture of the day, including perennial favourite of mine, The Election Night Armistice:

Doctor Who: The Pilot (2017)

Well, that’s about the most promising start a series of Doctor Who has had since Matt Smith turned up. Over the last few years, I confess I’ve not stopped yearning for the comforting regularity of a full series in the spring, so I’m delighted we’ve finally returned to it. This particular series is beginning with extra pressure too, with a new companion to introduce, a whole show to re-establish after a long gap, and a star’s departure to prepare for. But The Pilot pulls it off with style and a sense of fevered adventure that reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing while Doctor Who’s been off the air.

Firstly, Pearl Mackie immediately impresses as Bill. She exudes the perfect balance of grounding and wonderment, and the character neatly treads the line of being an identification figure for both regular viewers and shameless geeks. Her style has something of Ace to her as well, albeit a little less extreme. With companions over the last few years, one criticism that has chimed with me is that of companions quipping in what seems clearly to be the writer’s voice. With a companion aware of the sci-fi genre, it seemed there was an open goal for that kind of thing in place. Yet for the first time, the odd nod to it seemed to fit perfectly. Perhaps the character in fact gives more license, but personally I’d put it down to Mackie. We’re only one episode in, but she already feels like a person (not something I would have said of Amy or Clara).

The script must take some credit as well. The last two companion introductions have treated the companion as a puzzle as much as a person – The Pilot avoids that mistake. Bill may not have as much personal baggage in the form of a family as companions in the Eccleston/Tennant years had, but we nonetheless get a proper sense of the life she leads. We see enough snippets of her job, her life at university, sneaking into lectures she isn’t enrolled for, her social life, romantic desires, her independence – her home life too, culminating in the sudden moving scene of her looking at a box of photos of the mum she never knew. This is a person. Excellently established by the script, and brought to life with sparkle and individuality by Mackie.

There was a lot of noise surrounding Bill’s sexuality when it was mentioned in the run-up to broadcast. All there really is to say is how utterly gratifying the lack of fanfare was in the episode itself. There is no moment of coming out – for Bill there is no need to. Perhaps in that respect it was good that she was ‘outed’ by pre-publicity. Enough time for anti-diversity whingers to kick off before the episode itself takes the wind out of their sails by showing how utterly normal human sexuality is. Bill and Heather’s (Stephanie Hyam) attraction follows the same slow-drip pattern of information that any flirtatious relationship on TV does. It just happens to apply to two female characters. It doesn’t feel bold, because why should it? It may feel a step too far for the Daily Mail comments section, but thanks to the sustained effort made by mainstream programmes like Doctor Who since 2005, those people sound even sillier now than they did twelve years ago.

Speaking of twelve years, it’s impressive to have yet another ‘fresh start’ episode for the benefit of new viewers, but The Pilot manages it with aplomb. I can’t help but compare it to 2015’s season opener The Magician’s Apprentice. Both episodes have a lot of rapid movement from place to place – but The Magician’s Apprentice did not feel like a jumping-on point, and I’d be far less likely to describe The Pilot as frenetic. Nothing here feels arbitrary. Not a time-wasting sequence of a stand-up routine on a tank in medieval England in sight. Everything serves a purpose, namely that of ensnaring new viewers. It’s all an introduction. This is where the Doctor’s cover as a university lecturer comes in handy. All the lore of the series has effectively been seeded in a lecture to his students/us before the action has really begun.

There are plenty of nods and winks to the show’s past, be they heavily foregrounded pictures of River and Susan, or gentle call backs to previous stories. Off the top of my head, it’s hard for a university setting not to call Shada (1980) to mind, the monster seemed highly reminiscent of The Waters of Mars (2009) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) scampering away from a string of explosions was straight out of The Invasion (1968). And that’s to say nothing of the Movellans’ cameo (Destiny of the Daleks; 1979), because they’re rubbish. My point is: none of these things are allowed to interfere with the thrust of the episode. The focus is all on the adventure, on the moment, and the new. Nardole is wisely kept in the background too – introducing so many extraordinary things, you want as few people around as possible who accept them already.

How the episode treats the Doctor helps with the sense of a new beginning as well. That he’s grounded in one place (with a mission of his own that I expect we’ll return to) helps; I often find my favourite periods in the programme’s history are those when the Doctor feels like he has a home beyond the TARDIS. Solid ground somewhere to come back to. Reliable. And the Doctor feels more reliable now too. Peter Capaldi has never been less than exceptional, but his Doctor’s characterisation has been hard to pin down from series to series. Dare I say it, his Doctor now feels more like the Doctor. In Series 8, he was unsure who he was, in Series 9, with shades and guitar, he sometimes seemed to be denying who he was. Since Christmas 2015, he’s been him.

The clearest example of this shift to me in The Pilot is the moment when Bill asks if they can save Heather. The Doctor dodges the question, as kindly as possible, though it’s clear he already knows the answer. Imagine if the Doctor of 2014, or even 2015, had been asked that. Bill probably wouldn’t stay with him beyond the episode, for one thing. It helps that this is the Doctor welcoming someone aboard for the first time. He inherited Clara from his predecessor, and their conflicts helped Clara’s build character, perhaps to the detriment of the Doctor’s. Now, to let someone into his world, he has become a little more human. This Doctor reads like a man who’s had time to think, and reset, but is no less magical for it. I was dismayed when Capaldi announced he was leaving in January, but at least there are twelve episodes left to savour. I’m very much looking forward to them.

Every task The Pilot sets itself, then, it carries off handily. The foundations have been laid, but not just for a new companion and renewed Doctor, nor just for this one series, but for the whole programme. I react with horror when I think that so many cherished memories of watching the revived series are now over a decade ago. Even Blink turns ten in June. But this also makes me think how many more children must have started watching since then. In The Pilot, Doctor Who has now provided yet another new point for children to climb aboard the TARDIS for the first time.

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Doomwatch: The Plastic Eaters (1970)

A passenger flight glides through the air. Flight attendants give out refreshments, passengers relax and the flight crew ensure a smooth journey. Completely routine. But wait – the controls aren’t responding. Opening a control panel, a co-pilot realises all the insulation on the cables is dripping to nothingness. All the plastic in the plane is melting away. Control is lost, and as the pilot makes one last desperate attempt to land, the wheel dissolves in his hands…

Doomwatch was a seminal sci-fi series from Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, depicting a government agency that investigated new scientific dangers, usually man-made. With significant portions now missing from the archives, its remains nonetheless demonstrate its important place in TV history. Aside from launching Robert Powell’s career, it continues a robust streak of earthbound British science-fiction where the menace posed is often human in nature. From John Wyndham, to Quatermass, to the Doctor Who of the same period, Doomwatch tells us to watch out not for threats from the stars, but for those much closer to home. Its opening episode, The Plastic Eaters, is as confident a start as any series could hope for.

We may as well start by tackling the element most likely to put off newcomers – the sexism. John Ridge (Simon Oates, and this is not to detract from his excellent performance) is a fantasy of the James Bond/Gene Hunt variety. With espionage training, bravado and genuine heart, he’s clearly a character a lot of viewers would like to be. And within his first couple of lines, he’s cheerily admitting to pinching the office secretary’s bum – deemed acceptable on television back then, but so were flared trousers and Jimmy Savile. His brazen, Bond-style, calculated cruelty to a woman who’s lost her cousin in a plane crash is later revealed to be completely unjustified, but is never addressed. Yet his passion draws him to attack Dr Quist (John Paul) in just the right way to provoke him into action. Ridge fits rather neatly into the archetype of the ‘Brilliant Bastard’ – it’s a shame that the bastardry is so irrelevant to the brilliance.

Quist fits into a different archetype, one common in the streak of the genre Doomwatch is part of – the anarchic authority. Only a month after Jon Pertwee had debuted as TV’s Doctor Who, Quist shares just the same prickliness around the establishment, while ostensibly being a part of it. There are also parallels to André Morell’s Quatermass, who, in Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), laments the perversion of his well-intentioned work to military ends. Quist is at a deeper level of despair – for him, it is already too late. Ridge points out in their argument that Quist’s genius enabled the nuclear blasts depicted in photos on the office wall. Quist is clearly haunted by the monstrosity he inadvertently helped achieved, and the resulting determination with which he campaigns for scientific conscience, and which provides the series’ raison d’être, is plainly redemptive.

That redemptive quality feels more distinct to Doomwatch, but the quest for conscience in the face of human greed is an idea it carries forward from plenty of previous works. But it’s possible to see a renewed appetite, in Doomwatch and Doctor Who concurrently, for stories that call attention to problems on Earth, problems of technology and its impact on our society. Quite a shift from the high-flying fantasies of the sixties. It’s as though the moon landing put paid to the thrill of the chase, and now cold, hard reality sets in as eyes return to the ground. It’s interesting that two programmes should begin independently to concern themselves, like the Cold War paranoia of the ‘50s, with shady government cover-ups and conspiracies, with an added dose of incompetence and bureaucracy, courtesy of the British civil service.  Doomwatch may be a government agency, but they’re cast firmly as outsiders, bringing down a corrupt and dishonest beast in the form of a self-serving, amoral establishment.

An even clearer parallel emerges when comparing The Plastic Eaters to Malcolm Hulke’s Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970). With a gap of mere weeks between them, both examine a scientific problem in terms of the realities of an epidemic spreading through population centres. In Doctor Who’s case, Masters (Geoffrey Palmer), having contracted an unknown plague, manages to slip away before a quarantine is enacted. He boards a train – lingers by a ticket inspector – gets in a taxi. The ticket inspector interacts with hordes of commuters on a busy day. Soon outbreaks are reported all over London – and then a carrier boards a plane…

The virus in The Plastic Eaters, a new solvent accidentally transmitted from a lab by the cassette tape from a Dictaphone, may not be spread by human contact, but the pattern, and its effect, is just the same. Any mundane object with plastic could spread the virus. Bags and coffee cups on board a plane start to melt as they become infected. And if that plane touches down at an airport as intended… These scenes, set aboard the planes, are the episode’s most effective, showing the deadly human costs of the problems Doomwatch concerned with. It’s quite right, therefore, that Toby Wren (Powell) is the character thrown into this horrifying scenario. The new boy at Doomwatch, he’s at once cast in the ‘companion’ role, giving a human face to the organisation, and a human focus for the disasters it has to confront, while Quist and Ridge work to tackle the problems at their twisted roots in government.

The Plastic Eaters, then, lays down perfectly and confidently all the groundwork, thematic and tonal, that Doomwatch needs to succeed. With economy and precision, we know at once the characters who will guide us through the programme, while the episode presents all the elements that the series is concerned with. Establishment whitewashes, unpredicted disasters rising from innovation, and human irresponsibility leading to catastrophe with frightening and palpable real-world ramifications. A winning combination.

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The Nightmare Man (1981)

The Nightmare Man, the 1981 BBC adaptation of David Wiltshire’s Child of Vodyanoi, brings together two of Doctor Who’s most revered creative figures, writer Robert Holmes and director Douglas Camfield. With their shared status among die-hards, it seems unthinkable that Camfield had never directed a Holmes script before. But if anything, it only draws out more clearly the two men’s individual creative preoccupations, as they come together here directly for the very first time. Sometimes, it even works.

It doesn’t take long to start noticing parallels with previous Doctor Who adventures one or both of them had worked on. A unknown killer, or monster, wreaking havoc amongst an isolated Scottish community in a foggy outpost recalls Terror of the Zygons (1975; directed by Camfield, script-edited by Holmes). The fascination with the killer’s teeth and the appearance of Tony Sibbald help, too. Meanwhile, the scenes of three coast guards under siege in the face of the menace is reminiscent of the Antarctic portion of The Seeds of Doom (1976; the same roles played by Camfield and Holmes, and, like Zygons, written by Robert Banks Stewart).

The real Camfield signature arrives in the serial’s final instalment, when he gets the chance to direct a military operation with all the discipline and precision he brought to every production he helmed. Another institution, namely the police, is at the forefront for much of the serial, and ex-policeman Holmes’s relish of that is as obvious as Camfield’s fascination with the army. No longer writing for a family audience, Holmes lets his macabre sensibilities fly a little freer than in even his darker Doctor Who stories. There’s plenty of grisly, detailed description and gallows humour on show as the local investigation into several brutal murders progresses, given an excellent figurehead in Maurice Roëves as Inspector Inskip.

With no Doctor figure on the scene, nothing is guaranteed in terms of safety, and the grim tone struck in the early portions of the serial might well bear fruit. The heightened stakes are a boost for the programme, but the absence of a ‘Doctor’ figure also means the absence of a gateway into the sci-fi elements of the serial. A programme that spends its first half-hour being established as a crime drama with a slow, creeping horror element is, by the second episode, accepting far too readily the possibility that there is extra-terrestrial involvement. The vocabulary of that genre hasn’t been established by the time the suggestion of an alien presence is floated.

This is revealed, thankfully, to have been a red herring, and the closing instalment gives way to much exposition regarding a Soviet experiment run amok and a covert operation to control the damage. But too much time and energy is devoted beforehand to that red herring of contact from outer space. The prospect of a shift in genre tugs needlessly at the programme’s sleeve and a false impression is created as to what kind of programme we’re really watching. The prospect of governmental conspiracy is hinted at before the final episode, but it feels a very sudden shift nonetheless. Earlier and greater focus on that would certainly have benefitted the serial, keeping expectations and tone consistent. As it stands, the revelations of Colonel Howard (Jonathan Newth) draw attention to themselves by their heavy concentration in Part Four, and seem especially sudden from a character who has been so self-consciously enigmatic thus far.

On a similar note, with limited time, and attention directed elsewhere, we don’t get a strong sense of the community on the island, and how the menace impacts upon their way of life. Fiona (a young Celia Imrie) talks about how the killings have strained and changed the community – but we don’t feel it, because we haven’t seen it. I was amused to note in the first few minutes that The Nightmare Man suffers from the opposite problem one can often identify in a Woody Allen film. While in those, characters are often drawn clearly but have little connection to the real world, with us only observing them in their leisure time, The Nightmare Man takes pains to explain what everyone does for a living, in the space of one long, early scene, but we have very little idea who they are. Their jobs serve the plot, but the characters have precious little to say for themselves.

But this isn’t to say there’s nothing to recommend The Nightmare Man. Almost nowhere are Robert Holmes’s fascinations as a writer clearer, dedicated policemen trying to get the job done, confronted by a grisly, unknown adversary. It’s in the forensic observation, grim fixation and macabre details of the meticulous investigation. The dutiful stewardship of the community, in spite of the challenges of the job, the lonely nights manning the radio, the perilous patrols along the cliffs. Camfield’s usual fascination with military rigour elevates the final episode in particular as well, as it bleeds into the overall quality of the production.

While not as blissful a union as Doctor Who fans might have hoped, then, the two men’s passions shine through clearly in the programme. Occasionally at cross-purposes, their preoccupations nonetheless make a strong impression in their own right. For The Nightmare Man, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.

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The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953)

Given the kind of week it’s been, it seems appropriate to carry on looking at films by John Krish with The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953). Made without the proper permission from British Transport Films, since it looked back rather than forward, this love letter to London’s trams brought Krish’s career with the organisation to an end for the next 24 years. Growing increasingly emotive, it reveals British documentary’s roots and points towards its future influence as it binds the trams to London’s communities, and uses this to lament other traditions falling to the passage of time.

Familiar to viewers at the time, the image of the hulking trams as they glide about the capital is at the forefront early in the film. Wheeling through the busy streets by day, a sweeping silhouette passing the orbs of streetlamps at night, they cut a distinctive figure. That public perception is expanded and manipulated as the film progresses. Eventually we come to see them en masse, standing silent and still in their depots, awaiting their final day in use. It unsettles the comfortable image of them built up in the opening minutes of the film. Worse still is the sight of the disused vehicles burning to a cinder in a scrapyard. The familiar crumbling to dust.

But the trams are endowed with a greater meaning than just a recognisable symbol to the public. Krish takes pains to emphasise every little action that comes into play as a tram goes on its journey. Every hand ringing a bell, every guard standing by at a points lever on the street, every precise mechanical movement as the tram driver connects the beast’s arm to a power line. Those intimate details, the glimpses into someone’s everyday life, bestow the trams with a more personal significance – that felt by the individual tram workers, conductors and especially the drivers, often viewed by the camera from behind, to the public nameless and unnoticed.

The emotional link is then broadened, and the public’s perception of the trams made more personal too, through the prism of an elderly cockney couple’s journey on one. A narrator binds the old transport to the working class Londoner’s experience: “the trams were theirs”. Straight away, we’re treated to an old music hall song, Archie Harradine singing “Riding on Top of the Car”, and the music is used to string together the images of the couple’s jaunt. A conductor checks their tickets, the lady gives a wave to pedestrians below, she and her husband look out over the Thames as their tram crosses one of the bridges. The song makes their experience a common one, shared by Londoners all across the city, wrapped in communal nostalgia.

It’s this same sense of nostalgia that manifests itself when the film captures the trams’ last day. Children are seen riding as many as they can, collecting their route numbers in notebooks. Trams go through bustling communities that later make way for street parties, waving Union Jacks and all. Again, the narrator steps in, suggesting that the motorists delayed by trams every day will curse a little less today – projecting an attitude onto the subject that exposes British documentary’s roots as a propaganda tool. That projection pervades the whole film, as the trams are woven into London’s soul by these various devices, given greater credence by use of film from decades before showing the very first tram rides.

London is brought together around the trams by The Elephant Will Never Forget, then. But it’s an older, traditional London that seems to be saluted and captured as well – one that seems in danger of being forgotten. As the transport that gave common experience to communities all over the city fades away, might that shared sentiment fade too? The trams’ decommissioning helps symbolise a wider phenomenon, and as the music hall songs and the street parties fade as well, we’re left wondering what might take their place.

The degrading of the old and anxiety about the new, especially when it comes to working class culture, is a concern that takes the foreground over the coming years, as Free Cinema and the British New Wave highlighted the clash of ancient and modern in the country. In this way, the film shows documentary’s continuing influence in British cinema, as well as displaying its origins proudly. And for the sentimentality that entwines something as seemingly mundane as public transport to the hearts and minds of a whole city, The Elephant Will Never Forget offers a view of London and its spirit that remains recognisable today.

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Our School (1962)

I recently discussed John Krish’s moving documentary about old age, I Think They Call Him John (1964). Two years before then, in 1962, he looked at the other end of the scale when he wrote and directed Our School, a film examining life in a secondary modern. There are parallels that can be seen with the later film – emotional insight delivered to us through the filmmaker’s keen interest in the human face, and an innovative use of sound. But Our School communicates much more positive sentiments than I Think They Call Him John, while remaining nonetheless poignant in its own way.

The film is topped and tailed by shots that encapsulate its spirit. Its establishing shot pans across the contemporary school grounds as the headmaster leads an assembly in the Lord’s Prayer. We eventually settle in the school hall itself, the traditional ritual running alongside the modern setting. It’s a group experience, and the sense of stuffy anachronism is something many will doubtless remember. But more significant is the closing shot. At the end of the school day, the camera moves down a now empty corridor, the sound fading between memories of the lessons undertaken that day in the various classrooms we pass. It’s the rich variety of individual experiences and memories forged within a single day that is crucial to the film, and Our School is fascinated with this collision of the personal and the communal.

Captions at the beginning emphasise the range of education on offer (academic, technical, social), and we see a large number of different subjects, lessons and teaching styles on display. But we can identify common experiences for the children between all of these, as we recognise early tastes of doubt, fallibility, and new realisations about themselves. In a writing class, pupils are called up for common spelling mistakes. In English Literature, one shyly admits forgetting to hand his exercise book in. In an engineering lesson, another makes a mistake drawing up schematics and falls behind everyone else.

We can read on the children’s faces the self-consciousness that arrives in these moments, and sympathise. But most exciting are the moments of personal realisations or epiphanies, those which often arise in class discussions going towards their social education. A facial expression crosses a lot of the children’s faces, one that seems to say, ‘Yes, actually, why am I the way I am?’ In a discussion with a class of girls about marriage and relationships, the teacher interrogates them: ‘What do you mean, “settle down”?’ A pause – they all struggle to articulate a phrase they’ve received and are now repeating. Similarly, a mixed class of boys and girls approach with trepidation the reasons behind their own varied use of language and vocabulary – and whether they would consciously change the way they talk to fit in. Preserved forever, we can see these children ask “Why?” of themselves for perhaps the first time in their lives.

Aside from the chance to read youthful memories of our own on the children’s faces, these scenes also foreground the vital role the teachers must play – namely their fundamental task to form a bond of trust with every student, one that allows for such open discussions as those above. We can be intrigued by the variety of approaches and personalities among different teachers, all effective in their own right. With sterner, plain-spoken teachers (the teacher discussing use of language sticks in the mind), there can be a sense of prickliness, even of intellectual intimidation. Such is the nature of a discussion where views are challenged rigorously, with forensic precision. But we realise as the scene progresses that it isn’t so much intimidation we’re reading from the children’s subdued responses, but a sincere attempt to articulate themselves, as they grapple positively with the teacher’s grilling. There is respect here.

Later, we see a much pallier class-teacher relationship as a group of pupils are led through a discussion of budgeting their pocket money and their spending. The class rib each other about excessive spending, personal foibles – even a bawdy joke one of them makes. The teacher might not actively join in with that, but nor does he condemn. Rather he shows some restrained amusement. His approach helps instil an atmosphere of trust where every pupil feels comfortable talking to one another about their personal affairs. The comfortable openness of the discussion is something every class can aspire to. (No doubt an inspiration for the teachers the film was made for.)

These sequences are sufficiently enjoyable for one to rather long to join in. But one of my favourite moments of all was much shorter and much quieter. In the writing class mentioned above, a girl is spotted looking at her neighbour’s work. The teacher calls out her name to focus her. It could be a harsh repudiation, but after a beat, the girl looks back, and she and her teacher exchange a knowing smile. When authority speaks here, it isn’t as an oppressive voice from outside, but a trusted, respected one – about as close to equal as it could reasonably come. It leads to near-equal responsibilities as well. Never does it feel like order is being imposed from above – rather, everyone seems to meet their shared duties, adults and children alike.

To ensure such an atmosphere exists falls to the teachers, but to maintain it accordingly becomes a common effort. Our School, then, offers the best possible view of school experience, showing it as a mini-society that is open, liberal and respectful. Hardly surprising, given its origins as a film receiving sponsorship from the NUT. But it’s an ideal that it’s right to promote. For one aspect remains true regardless, that which the film puts forward most clearly. It is in this place, in the moments and experiences lived within these various corridors and classrooms, that people grow more fully formed, little by little. It’s a process that needs delicacy, nuance and trust, and one which Our School shows coming to perfect fruition.

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City Music

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Discussing the sound of Doctor Who’s early years, the first two names to inevitably, and rightly, come up, are Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Spawning TV’s greatest theme tune and the iconic sound of the TARDIS respectively, no other composer’s work for the series has proved as enduring. But for the show’s first decade, I think it’s worth adding a third name to those we’d consider most influential in crafting the sound of the series: Tristram Cary.

Cary composed the incidental music for the second ever story, The Mutants (aka The Daleks; 1963-64), and in doing so produced the programme’s first electronic score. The cues he created here became a stock library of music that emerged throughout later stories over the next few years. Inadvertently, this gives a consistent tone to the disparate worlds of the programme’s most adventurous period in terms of storytelling. The musique concrète score is distinctive, but proves adaptable to a number of different scenarios across the series, so wide is its range within its first story (admittedly, it only resurfaces in sci-fi adventures rather than historical).

In fact, my first encounter with it was watching 1966’s The Ark. The sound of Barbara’s encounter with the Magneton, Doctor Who’s first ever monster, is for me the sound of the stirring life of a jungle drifting through space. The shimmering glass hum and distant, distorted bells of the Daleks’ magnificent city lend themselves just as readily to the slow glide of an abandoned Earth towards its death, observed from afar by its surviving children.

Director of the first Dalek story Christopher Barry also re-used Cary’s score when he returned for 1966’s The Power of the Daleks, and some of the cues at this point become linked inextricably to the Daleks themselves. The insidious cue used in the first Dalek story as they stand silently, waiting for the right moment to kill an unarmed man, with its deep, rumbling heartbeat and surges of reversed, metallic cries, returns at the first cliffhanger of Power, as the creatures apparently lie dormant. But soon, they will begin to stir, and to plot. Malevolent life lurks within. The dissonant lamenting sirens of the aftermath of their ambush return in Power as well, over lingering shots of a massacre. A ghostly all clear, announcing the danger has passed – because there is no one left alive to save. It’s an unremittingly bleak score at times, sounding as ravaged as the world it underscores, a Cold War-inspired nuclear wasteland.

So far apart were their broadcasts, the musical links between these stories are easier to spot for a fan community having coalesced. The re-emergence of Cary’s music over the years, both from this first score and some of his doom-laden electronic cues and stings composed for The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965-66), can be identified now for the unifying effect it has on an expansive range of adventures – one that likely wasn’t noticed or particularly yearned for at the time. It helps that they largely populate iconic stories featuring the Daleks – even those episodes that are missing are noted, perhaps even more heavily than if they still existed, for how they sound.

Less fortunate are the scores Cary composed for less well remembered stories. Doctor Who’s earliest missing story, Marco Polo (1964), boasts Cary’s second score, a wistful, exotic piece of work for which no recording survives, and which is talked about very little. It isn’t just a question of inaccessibility. Cary’s music for The Gunfighters (1966) is as unfairly overlooked as The Gunfighters itself. It’s a Wild West comedy, the action punctuated by a ballad that he rearranges throughout. Quite apart from its boldness for Doctor Who, it showcases Cary’s versatility as a composer – this from the man who crafted such unnerving soundscapes for desolate, terrifying alien worlds. (This is before we even take into account his illustrious career outside of Doctor Who.) The Mutants (aka The Mutants; 1972) is similarly poorly rated, but elevated by Cary’s ethereal electronic soundtrack, at times anarchic, at others awe-inspiring.

It’s quite right that we remember Cary’s astonishing work on that second Doctor Who story – a work for which there was no precedent, but which by chance gave a consistency to the programme throughout those varied early years. But listening to the music he wrote for the programme elsewhere reminds us what a gifted, skilled and versatile creator he was, combining electronic innovation with traditional musicianship and craft. The programme would be blessed to hear his like again.

A small selection of Tristram Cary’s work outside of Doctor Who is available here.

city music - tristram cary