Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Nearly fifteen months after the announcement of her casting, it was indeed about time for Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as TV’s Doctor Who. Hers was also the start of a brand new era for the programme – new showrunner, writers, producers, composer. The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt to me the boldest relaunch of the show since its return in 2005, with a refreshing new approach to its cast of characters and some exciting, even unsettling, changes of style and tone. Exactly the shake-up it was due.

Though it’s hard to judge a Doctor from their first episode alone, but following a casting that prompted a min-revival of the historic debate amongst predominantly male fans as to whether or not women can act, this was a triumph for Jodie Whittaker. Her introduction isn’t fed to us in quite the show-stopping, blockbuster-y way that many other Doctors have enjoyed this century (looking at how we meet her companions, this is surely a deliberate choice). But the big moments are still there. Moments of heroic action, a big climactic speech, proudly asserting her identity and her morality. Fantastically inquisitive, often struggling to catch up with her own mind – and a lovely bit of childlike humour when she asks Yas (Mandip Gill) if they can have the lights and siren on in the police car.

Separated from the TARDIS for now, she is also forced into an Earthbound, practical mindset not properly seen since Jon Pertwee was having to make do with whatever technology our planet had to offer in the early 1970s. For me, the first time this Doctor felt like she was really discovering herself was the sequence where she makes her own sonic screwdriver (now with added Sheffield steel). Eight years on from another relaunch for the show, where Matt Smith gets given a new, ready-made one by the TARDIS (“Thanks, dear,” indeed), this was a brilliant distinction, and a welcome reminder after a long period of the Doctor seeming almost magical, that the character is a scientist – she’s hands-on, she builds, she is an inventor.

‘Down-to-Earth’ seems an apt phrase to describe this first episode, then, and it’s reflected in the companions too. This isn’t to say we didn’t believe Bill was real, or Donna, or Clara (sometimes), but over the years, we’ve been used to seeing characters who feel like big personalities to us from the off. There are broad brushstrokes, and we often meet them through the lens of their own perspective. Meeting three new friends at once, ours is much more of an outside eye, in spite of Ryan (Tosin Cole) communicating with us directly through a vlog, Our view of them seems more objective as we see multiple criss-crossing personal relationships slowly reveal themselves. We’re invested enough to continue, but I certainly feel after episode one that there’s much more to learn.

My biggest criticism of the episode is that one of those avenues is cut off before we have a chance to explore it. Grace’s (Sharon D Clarke) death felt to me a needless cruelty, inflicted on someone who brought the most sense of life and soul to proceedings (aside from maybe the Doctor herself). It’s her who really brings a love of adventure to a tense, often grim, story “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” she asks Graham (Bradley Walsh). “Yes!” he replies.

Others more knowledgeable than me have questioned the underlying (perhaps unconsidered) politics of a story of white female empowerment culminating in the death of a black woman, but for my part, I felt cheated of a character I was so keen to see return periodically. Grace is given a good send off by her loved ones, and I have no doubt her loss will continue to have ramifications for Graham and Ryan, but is a character’s death really necessary to catalyse other relationships? And come to that, what of the other relationships that will now go unexamined?

A shame in an otherwise fantastic relaunch, yet it does also serve the grimmer tone that is struck at points in the episode. After a trailer and publicity that unanimously screamed action, adventure and fun, this episode had some surprisingly dark turns. There was something deeply unsettling in the brutality of the amusingly misnamed Tim Shaw/T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oakley), and the implied violence of maimed corpses – to say nothing of the evidence of this that he wears so proudly. It’s made more affecting by the profound sense of the real world in this story. Mundane details like the flavourless salad and kebabs being eaten by one of his victims make his violence that bit more visceral – especially after the more fantastical violence since the programme’s return.

Segun Akinola’s music amplifies this, too. Gone are the sentimentalist comforts of Murray Gold, and in their place is much greater emphasis on atmospheric drones, tension and dread abound. The updated music casts us into this new world of Doctor Who just as surely as the sumptuous changes to the programme’s cinematography. This can also be said of his new theme tune arrangement (to be heard in its proper place for the first time in tonight’s episode). For the first time this century, it speaks less of action and adventure, and more of the ethereal and the unknown. The result is by turns exciting and just a little bit frightening – quite right too.

All in all, this was a brilliant first step down a new path. I have my misgivings on one aspect, true, but in general I couldn’t be more excited by the fresh directions the show’s taking – at just the right time. Jodie Whittaker looks set to be a fantastic Doctor, I’m looking forward to visiting strange new worlds with her and her friends, and I’m quietly thrilled at having no idea what to expect next.

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Peter Fleming on Blue Peter

Hi, everyone. Blue Peter, the world’s longest-running children’s TV programme, turns 60 this month, and I thought it would be good to mark the occasion. Therefore, I’ve handed over writing duties this week once again to Peter Fleming, a leading light of the so-called golden age of British children’s television. Him having worked at the BBC for decades, I thought it would be enlightening to read his recollections. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, there!

I can hardly believe it, my friends. 60 years of Blue Peter (the television programme, not to be confused with the nickname some at the BBC gave me when I was going through periods of depression)! Whenever it has been on our screens, even during its best remembered eras, it has always been bread-and-butter television. No sense of its own legend – they were always too busy trying to get a half-hour in front of the cameras in time!

While I never worked on the programme myself, viewing it instead from outside with a heady mix of wonderment and furious jealousy, I did have the pleasure of appearing on it once or twice. The most notable instance was in 1967, when I was mistaken for incoming presenter Peter Purves on his first day. I didn’t realise what had happened until much later in the programme, after I had already grown increasingly confused and angry at my ‘colleagues’ and their bizarre questions about my time as a Doctor Who companion. The edition culminated in my screaming at Petra uninterrupted for around five minutes, and I must say I’m deeply disappointed it still survives in the BBC Film and Videotape Library.

That was my first contact with Valerie Singleton, and with John Noakes, who, as a running joke, pretended not to know me for decades after! It has been well-documented that I lived with him for several months in spite of this in 1977, having just moved out of the children’s home where I had lived from the age of eight up until my late thirties. He initially refused, but I managed to get my own way by cunningly disguising myself as Shep and living as a dog for six months. A relatively uneventful time in my life, yet it gave me a number of warm memories.

My favourite of all these was the day I saw John’s ascent of Nelson’s Column first-hand. I was very impressed by the dedication of the whole team making that riveting film. John had grown terribly nervous at the idea of climbing such a high ladder at such an angle, and to get around this, it was decided the most sensible option would be to dig down underneath the column until it sank into the ground and reached a more manageable height. I chipped in as well, burrowing frantically with my paws, and between us, we managed to reduce it from 52 metres to 3 in under an hour. Models and camera trickery did the rest, and hey presto – a landmark piece of television!

Those are my own connections to what happened on screen, but I have other memories as a viewer from throughout the programme’s history. I remember plenty of the animals, beyond my own experiences of attacking one of the dogs and being another. Joey the parrot was often employed as a messenger within Television Centre, for instance, and was, in spite of his erratic flights paths, by far the most efficient method of exchanging memos in the BBC at the time (he was later superseded by George the tortoise, who was able to deliver the messages slightly faster). Best of all, of course, was Lulu the elephant’s visit in 1969! Generations since have enjoyed the sight of her soiling the studio floor and felling her keeper – though they were less receptive four years on when Lulu the pop star did the exact same thing for publicity reasons.

Decades later, the programme was still making a difference, opening children’s eyes to the wider world. I remember well the 1996 summer expedition in which Tim Vincent and Diane-Louise Jordan visited South Africa, recently free from apartheid. I remember also the minor scandal that erupted following this, when it was revealed the production team had been helping undermine the ruling National Party for years, distributing anti-segregation literature and helping organise demonstrations – all for the sake of this very item years down the line! Admittedly, these minor acts of sedition didn’t garner many complaints, given the circumstances, and the team argued they had been completely open about their actions, with their ‘Topple a Regime’ appeal in 1990, and the celebration that accompanied its totaliser finally reaching its target of ‘One’.

The appeals were one thing, and the makes were another. I always admired how the programme inspired children’s creativity, and the makes also went some way to inspire my own! I would often tune in to watch in case they might spark some idea for a programme, and sure enough, this happened very often! The Cleanest Rocket in Space (1968) arose from one of Valerie’s numerous reuses of Fairy liquid bottles. The Princess Mary’s Advent Crown (1970) was similarly inspired by Blue Peter (with its title character voiced by a young Sarah Greene, no less! I can only hope she grew more competent and professional after turning 12).

And, as many will remember, I was inspired to make a return to television after being inspired by Anthea Turner’s ‘Tracy Island’ make in 1993. It was only after broadcast of this new series that I was informed I had plagiarised a pre-existing programme in its entirety. As it had been broadcast on ITV, I must admit I hadn’t been especially familiar with Thunderbirds (1965-66), but following the legal battles, I fortunately now find it very hard to forget.

Plenty of viewers like me will have joined in the makes, and likely have sent off for their very own Blue Peter Badge – that medal of honour! I was sadly too old at the badge’s inception in 1963 ever to receive my own (aside from the one I was briefly awarded for my aforementioned accidental spell of presenting in 1967). I confess that I once pinched one from under the noses of the BBC’s correspondence unit at TV Centre, but within minutes, it had burst into flames in my hand. The things seemed to know when they hadn’t been earned.

There were no hard feelings over this, of course – I accepted it was I who had been dishonest, and today I owe the correspondence unit an immense debt of gratitude. Round about the turn of the millennium, I felt myself going through increasingly lonely spells, and I really had no one to talk to. Many of my closest friends had sadly left us, and, too fearful to do anything as shameful as seek professional advice, I instead posed as a ten year-old and wrote letters to Blue Peter, asking for guidance. The replies I received were some of the most helpful and sensitive messages I’d ever had addressed to me, and I can only imagine the difference they would have made to a genuine child. I was very grateful for the signed photograph of Konnie Huq, too.

60 years old, and still entertaining, inspiring and comforting children across the land – whether from TV Centre, or from its home of the last few years in the North. At the time of that move, many argued, myself included, that the very idea of the television industry as ‘London-centric’ was an absurdity, but I’m happy now to eat my words, and admit that my eyes have been opened by the programme’s relocation to Salford (a small suburb of Manchester). London had so much as it was, and how wonderful that other children can now enjoy having such a beacon on their doorstep! Just as it has lit up so many young minds over the decades, so it does still today – and it delights me to see it now just as much as at the very beginning.

Happy birthday, Blue Peter!

With love and best wishes,

Another Peter

Blue Peter’s 60th birthday special is broadcast on CBBC, Tuesday 16th October, 17:00.

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The One Where I Get Annoyed by Friends

I think I’m being uncontroversial when I say that the titling format used for episodes of hit NBC sitcom Friends is the worst and most frustrating ever adopted by a TV show in the history of the medium.

Admittedly, this is from the point of view of someone of my particular disposition. I can list every Doctor Who story by title, in order of transmission from 1963 to the present day, and often do so as a party trick when the night is drawing to a close and I want everyone to leave. It’s a practice that involves precision, and the fact I can do it is indicative of a certain level of neurosis, especially on the part of myself aged 10 when I taught myself the entirety of the old series at the expense of learning to ride a bike.

Friends episode titles (The One With the Baby Shower; The One With the Nap Partners) make a joke out of the exact opposite state of mind, one not shared by me, but likely by the majority of its audience: the unwillingness, the inability, but ultimately, the lack of necessity, to learn episodes’ titles precisely to refer to them. There’s a case to be made that, at ten years, this could be the world’s longest meta-joke. It appeals to the less neurotic version of myself I sometimes aspire to be, and I’ve accordingly never learned the Friends episode titles. To do so would surely defeat the point of the joke.

But it creates problems when my neurotic side begins to resurface. As a millennial who works in an office with similarly aged people, it’s practically inevitable that Friends comes up in conversation at points. I mention episodes to my colleagues, referring to them by events that happen within. As I do, I feel myself twisting a knife into my own heart, because I know, deep down, those aren’t the events mentioned in the title. I sound like a man trying to name an episode correctly and failing – if I wanted to name an episode by the correct title, I could, yet I feel bound not to learn Friends titles by the nature of the joke, and it makes me look utterly incompetent.

For example, until looking it up a few seconds ago, I could only remember The One Where No One’s Ready as the one where Joey wears all of Chandler’s clothes. That isn’t what it’s called, but it is the bit everyone remembers, perhaps due to its inclusion in an episode I imagine is titled The One Where Clips from Old Episodes Are Shown to Save Money Again. Perhaps I can’t be blamed, in that case, since it’s ultimately the fault of the programme makers for failing to recognise what will and won’t resonate in people’s memories years down the line.

Future episodes and events can’t be predicted, and this causes problems for the titles, especially early on. The first and second seasons contain episodes called The One Where Rachel Finds Out and The One Where Ross Finds Out. How were the executive producers to know that, by The Last One, both Ross and Rachel would have found out eight to nine years’ worth more things? As it is, I have no idea which episodes those are, but would guess they’re the ones where Rachel finds out Phoebe has been buying loads of stuff from Pottery Barn after all, and where Ross finds out his girlfriend’s father is Bruce Willis.

Consequences arise in conversation from this confusion as well, especially when dealing with people who actually have gone to the trouble of learning all the episode titles.  I once discussed an episode featuring Ross’s new girlfriend from season 10, whereas the fan and friend I was talking to thought I was talking about The One With Ross’s New Girlfriend from season 2. As we had been discussing them both as examples of plot strands that display a rare improvement in representation for non-white actors, in Julie (Lauren Tom) and Charlie (Aisha Tyler), it took us several minutes to realise the misunderstanding.

The ongoing irritation has made me incredibly bloody-minded and as a result I now often throw false episode titles into conversations with my die-hard Friends fan friends, but which nonetheless broadly fit the narrative of the series, purely for the sake of causing them anguish. These include The One Where Chandler and Joey Need to Grow Up, The One Where Monica is Clean, or, my personal favourite to keep people guessing, The One Where Ross Finally Tips Over Into Just Being Annoying.

I also refer to the first episode, in as clinical a tone possible, as The Pilot Episode, in spite of efforts from fans, with the exact same neurotic compulsion as me, to rename it The One Where Rachel Arrives for consistency’s sake. I sympathise with their plight, but ultimately feel they should have let a programme into their hearts with more sensible, easy-to-follow titles, such as The Curse of Fenric (1989), The Mutants (1963/4), The Mutants (1972), or The One Where the Daleks Come Back (1964; 1965; 1965/6; 1966; 1967; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975; 1979; 1984; 1985; 1988; 2005; 2006; 2007; 2008; 2010; 2012; 2014; 2015). We made our choices, and now we must live with them.

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The Best Of

I never found myself satisfied by watching clip show episodes of sitcoms. I always let out a groan of disappointment when E4’s cycling repeat of Friends would reach one. This also happened to a lesser extent with episodes of The Simpsons, or Thunderbirds, Stingray et al, all of which would at least have some new plot line threaded through all the clips. Meanwhile, Frasier was never able to put yearly clip shows together, and you can imagine its producers’ frustration when they realised they’d structured all their episodes too well for such a thing ever to work.

Yet there is something to be said for anything that looks back over our favourite moments, capturing all that we loved about a thing in one short stretch of time – and these days that often goes far beyond TV and music. As nostalgia still has such a powerful hold on our mainstream culture at the present moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to compile my very own ‘best of’ of ‘best ofs’.

  • Inspector Morse broadcast a clip show episode on ITV in 1999, to mixed reviews. Various different murders and crimes were looked at in passing, but the editing team used straight cuts instead of cross-fades, and used music to mask all the joins, making it seem like a standard episode that was just incredibly difficult to follow.
  • In 2003-5, coverage of football matches would often incorporate live footage of old matches between the same teams, leading fans at home to have a very different impression of those watching at the stadium. While eventually discontinued, having caused serious confusion, especially those with a Fantasy Football team, the practice did prove constructive in the sense that only ever showing England scoring gave the impression that we won every single international game we played, drastically reducing the levels of violence and hooliganism after each match.
  • Airlines frequently give passengers a taste of their best journeys on offer as a sample flight, in which an aircraft flits rapidly between one route and another, not touching down for several weeks. It offers stunning views, but these are hard to enjoy after the nausea kicks in after the first five minutes of flight path hopping.
  • Various news outlets have started adopting a best-of approach both for slow news days and for occasions when the real news is considered too upsetting for viewers. This has the two undesirable effects of viewers either being lulled into a false sense of security, or kept in a unjustifiably high state of panic (although the latter arguably is much the same as normal news in the current climate).
  • BBC News has used the above technique for many years, and has also done the same for coverage of the House of Commons on BBC Parliament. Today, the more mundane debates are often livened up by suddenly cutting back to golden moments from the past few years, such as John McDonnell’s expulsion from the chamber after lifting a ceremonial mace and waving it around a bit in protest at Heathrow expansion, or Hillary Benn’s inspiring call to commence aerial bombing of Syria in 2015.
  • The Labour Party themselves noted this approach and began to employ it to rouse the audiences at their annual conference as early as 2002. Tony Blair’s speeches would often be peppered with clips of speeches given at previous conferences, when it felt like he still had something worth saying. Gordon Brown’s speeches where often interrupted by clips of Blair, whether he liked this or not, and Jeremy Corbyn’s appearances now tend to segue very quickly into footage of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, and at last year’s conference a full screening of Kes (1969).
  • When Pink Floyd released their 1999 album Clip Show, it used various extracts of previous albums and singles from throughout their career, woven into shorter strands of newly recorded music that linked them all together. It occurred to them two years later to release an actual best-of, which sold considerably better.
  • Facebook occasionally indulges in nostalgia by periodically not existing for weeks at a time, giving users a taste of what life was like before they were in the grip of an aggressive neurological addiction. Immediately afterwards, they discuss how much better it would be to return that time, before being dragged back in by a Buzzfeed quiz.

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Peter Fleming and Roald Dahl

Hi, everyone. I’m still away this week, but Peter Fleming, legend of the golden age of British children’s television, has written something in my place – for a very special occasion. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my little sailor friends!

I had a pleasant surprise this week when I heard that Roald Dahl Day was upon us again! 102 years since his birth, but still the best loved children’s author in the land – and, to date, the only fighter pilot to have enjoyed a successful collaboration with Quentin Blake (whose technical manuals were largely written off as impractical by the RAF).

The occasion has made me feel tremendously nostalgic, as I am fortunate enough to have enjoyed a correspondence with Roald Dahl over the years. I’ll admit it’s grown a little more distant in recent years, and since the early 1990s I’ve rarely received a reply. Yet we had a close professional relationship back in the day, in spite of our differing mediums of choice, and he often sought my advice on bits and pieces he was writing. Whether he took the advice is another matter (!), and I thought I’d share with you some of the more notable instances, if only to give you an idea of what could have been!

In 1963, Roald was working on his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story. A great success, but I still maintain that it would have conquered even more children’s imaginations if he had listened to my suggestions and set it in a cardboard factory instead. He could have gone into fascinating detail describing the process of manufacturing cardboard items, and shown that even the most simplistic of items is alive with the romance of human ingenuity.

And if he still wanted to make it a story with moral lesson, no matter – the disorderly children could very easily be packaged into cardboard boxes and sent off to far-flung corners of the world, never to be reunited with their families. An innovative solution, I’m sure you’ll agree! And a great opportunity to explore the arguments of nature against nurture, if he had then reunited parents with their distorted offspring in an epilogue, exploring whether they could truly call each other family any more. I didn’t receive a reply to that letter, so I suspect the suggestion never reached him, alas.

He did, however, take my advice when I suggested in the early 1970s that he pen a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! Sure enough, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator went on to be one of his worst received books, and he held a vendetta against me for some time over the matter. (I hasten to add, the racial stereotypes were his own addition.)

Slightly before this, I’d suggested to him that the Fantastic Mr Fox book he was working on had taken entirely the wrong view, and that it was the farmers who should be the protagonists. “After all, foxes cannot really speak, can they? A silly idea, I hope you now see,” I wrote to him in 1969. What’s more, a farmer friend had spoken to me about the trials and tribulations of working under siege from the, admittedly very pretty, beasts, and I felt his plight needed putting forward to the nation. I should think even Charlie and the Cardboard Factory would have been outshone had Roald followed my suggestion and concluded his book with a heroic and bloody fox hunt. Again, I fear the draft of this chapter I posted him as an example was never received.

The last detailed discussion we had was during the late 1980s, when we corresponded over his ongoing work on Matilda. I was adamant that children simply wouldn’t sympathise with such an unruly girl, causing such disruption to school life and being so disrespectful to the authorities. Roald and I would frequently write and exchange drafts of chapters in tandem to help keep his mind fresh. We had an agreement that, should any of my ideas be used, my name would also go on the cover – ultimately none were, of course. Yet still I like to think there would have been a very enthusiastic audience for my version of the book, in which Matilda uses her telekinetic powers to help Miss Trunchbull cane the naughtier pupils, while Miss Honey is forced to resign following a scandal over finances. We will never be sure!

That was the last great collaboration we enjoyed, although in 1991 I did have an encounter with his work once again. It had struck me that his Tales of the Unexpected stories would make for a wonderful children’s programme – which I took it upon myself to produce! This was intended to be my glorious return to television, following a series of embarrassing and increasingly public mental breakdowns, but things got off to a very bumpy start when Roald’s solicitors got in touch to say that the stories were never meant for a child audience and that to proceed would be against his wishes. I tried writing to him personally for confirmation, but by then he’d stopped replying, and so on I went!

I felt very excited by the pilot recording of Lamb to the Slaughter, and felt fully my old self again once we’d made it – especially after I’d finally put the finishing touches to the extended two-hour murder scene. Sadly the project never went beyond that, as the morning after the commissioning executives had watched it, I went down to the studio only to find that the locks had been changed. Nobody was answering the intercom, and this cycle of events perpetuated for the next few days until one morning I woke up and must have just forgotten about it.

Eventually, Anglia Television took over the project, putting it out in the evenings for a grown-up audience. A great missed opportunity! And so my professional connections with Roald Dahl came to an end, but I still look back fondly over the time we spent working together. Perhaps he would do the same. After all, I’ve no doubt my advice was invaluable to him – even if, as often seemed to happen, he found it most useful in its provision of something to define himself against.

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming is appearing at the Liverpool Comedy Festival on Wednesday 19th September.

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Peter Fleming on Dogs

Hi, everyone. I’m away this week, so have given over writing duties once more to Peter Fleming, one of the leading lights of the golden age of British children’s television, who’s been reflecting on his favourite animals recently. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there!

They say in television you should never work with children or animals. Arguably I adhered to this old adage, except of course I consistently misheard it for years as ‘you should never live with children or animals’. Consequently, I have spent much of my life unhappily in solitude, and have worked on many programmes that were full-blown disasters thanks to the various performers and creatures involved in them. Who could forget the chaotic production of The Doctor’s Cow Will See You Now (1968), or the unfortunate police investigation arising from The Feisty Boys the following year? That’s to say nothing of The Circus Comes to School, which proved to the viewers of 1971 that five year-olds make for absolutely dreadful fire-eaters (and even worse lion tamers).

Yet there were some programmes where the animals, at least, behaved much better, and we made some truly special television as a result. These were pretty much exclusively the series that centred around dogs. I had always wanted one myself, but, believing you should never live with children or animals, I tried instead to incorporate them into my work and own one vicariously. Auntie Astrid’s Mobile Kennel (1965) was a favourite of mine, and Billie, the golden retriever we used in The Best Behaved Mayor (1974) captured the hearts of a whole generation – as well as offering up a bold new idea for how we govern the country. Why not solve disputes by enacting the policy most enthusiastically welcomed by a dog?

I loved looking after Billie when I had the chance, and he was an invaluable script editor too, frequently chewing up pages that would often turn out to be utterly superfluous to the storyline. Admittedly, he also chewed up the pages he liked best, so keen was he to get his teeth into the part, and did develop an irritating habit of, when I had thrown away an undesired page, mistakenly thinking I was playing fetch and immediately bringing it back. In spite of those issues, we had a very fruitful relationship, and I miss those days very much.

In addition, I got on very well with all the other dogs we used, and I always felt better and happier in their company than when left to my own devices. Yet still I never owned one properly that I could call my own or consider family. I did have a guide dog, Teddy, for a brief period, but it turned out after a year that I wasn’t blind, so I had to give him back. On reflection, I should have put two and two together when I was thinking how lovely he looked upon meeting him, but sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of you – it’s then that you tend to need the dog, of course.

Throughout my career, I have felt a certain affinity with the dear things. The need for approval is perhaps what I find most appealing, and their desperation for the attention of humans put me very much in mind of my own desperation for the attention of commissioners. It’s perhaps why one of my most prolific creative periods was when I was living with John Noakes for a few months in 1977. He’d refused my request that he put me up until I found somewhere new, on the grounds that he barely knew who I was, so I disguised myself as Shep for the duration to get my own way. John was none the wiser, and in that time, in the canine mindset, I managed on the sly to get more programmes commissioned than I had ever done before. I also wrote them as a border collie, which is why most of them were incomprehensible.

Now, although my days of either working with or living as dogs are over, and I’ve no fixed abode to keep one of my own in, I do like seeing them on the river bank as I drift about the country on my little raft. Occasionally I might try and lasso one to draw me along for a while and establish a bond, but I largely only succeed in dragging them towards the water, and immediately have to help them back up and apologise to the owners.

Aside from that, I see plenty of other things to remind me of all the lovely canine friends I had over the years. Going along the waterways, I sail by old bits of memorabilia from my programmes surprisingly frequently, most commonly of all when I’m floating down inner-city canals, and come across bin bags containing merchandise that must have been made to promote Jim, the Dog Who Tied Himself Up (1972). I must say, I don’t remember them marketing any toys for that one, and I’m sure nothing that pungent could ever have sold well, but it’s lovely to see it so fondly remembered all the same.

Every time I see a dog, regardless of breed or location, my mind travels back to any number of happy times spent with the various individuals I’ve had the good fortune to meet in my time. As well as being immense fun to work with (more fun than many humans, I hasten to add), they always gave me a sense of comfort and companionship that feels all the more precious now that I’m isolated and river-bound. They never pre-judge or write you off. They care, they listen, they understand, and, in Billie’s case, they bring you closer to winning a BAFTA than you’ll ever come again.

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming will be appearing at the Liverpool Comedy Festival on Wednesday 19th September.

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World on Your Shoulders

The summer draws to a close, and it feels as if a glorious period for sport fades away with it. Wimbledon and the World Cup are distant memories, and the nation prepares to settle down for a stint of cosy nights in and unrelenting misery. But all is not quite lost. Over the last few weeks, I and many others have discovered a new sport, and it seems likely that a new craze is on the horizon: planet-lifting.

Often mistaken in photographs for people practising gymnastics (specifically when viewed upside down), planet-lifting is an enormous challenge for mind and body. The athlete begins in a handstand position, but then, with incredible focus and grip, gradually shifts their centre of gravity such that it travels up and out of their body altogether. Reaching a state of grace and oneness with the world at their fingertips, the participant can then right themselves, lifting the whole planet above their heads, out of its own orbit in space.

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Previously, the sport has been largely the preserve of gods and steroid abusers, but is becoming increasingly popular in the age of mindfulness, and in the wake of continued improvement in the quality of protein shakes on the market. Players have all spoken of the zen-like state of calm the sport instils, and many champions have gone on to become monks and nuns following their success on the field. Naturally many amateurs are now keen to try it out, and there has been growing talk of it being made into a competitive sport, but this comes with a vast set of potential risks to consider, not least the possibility of the world splitting.

So far, the easiest solution offered has been for players to compete with themselves. The ‘Many Worlds’ theory of parallels universes allows for an infinite number of results to be generated by just one athlete. The main issue here has been with procuring footage of any actual contest, since exchanging recordings between separate space-time continuums remains prohibitively expensive. Yet without it, the process of ranking performances is largely an exercise in listing successive numbers without any genuine entertainment to watch, and there isn’t currently room in any sports channel’s TV schedule for this.

Competitive matches are possible in theory, but in practice would require a great deal of prior planning. The current idea is that players would stand in stadiums on opposite points of the planet, taking it in turns to lift it in one direction then return it to its original place, rankings being determined by timings of repositioning. But even a one-player game requires, for instance, flight paths around the world to be emptied so as to avoid passengers suddenly finding the sky lifted away from them. Additionally, any ill-placed satellites can find themselves suddenly pulverised by the planet they are attempting to transmit to (a further headache for anyone attempting to cover the sport on TV).

A doubling of this already cumbersome workload is naturally undesirable, to say nothing of the concerns surrounding the sport’s environmental impact. At present, any planet-lifter on Earth is assigned a corresponding athlete on the Moon to ensure no major event interferes with the tide unnecessarily. No one is keen for increased planetary movement to complicate this further, and wildlife is already being affected by the regular upheaval as it stands, not least nocturnal animals. Many villages in the south of England are now ruled by owls in the daytime, with a small number of citizens braving a trip outdoors at night to fetch essential supplies.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that a careful, constructive application of the sport could allow us to shift the Earth’s orbit further out from the Sun, curbing the more harmful effects of Global Warming, and laying a good foundation for our species’ future prospects after the Sun eventually expands. It’s not easy to determine at this stage what other effects that may produce in the short term, but the potential long term gain has served as a healthy dose of good PR for the sport.

If these positive impacts could be determined, it might then prove easier to plan far enough ahead to engineer the solar system on a wider scale, and then the galaxy, through teams of players operating across different planets and satellites in the manner of synchronised swimmers, eventually bringing a more harmonious order to our universe. This is a long way off yet, but is being floated in liberal circles as one of the first major tasks for the new US space force, given the current lack of necessity for interstellar war (although problems are expected if any teams were to take the knee prior to lifting).

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