We Will Survive

The consensus is that Doctor Who’s first Cybermen were not up to much. They looked like men with tights on their heads. The costumes were ungainly, they weren’t properly finished, and the creatures’ sing-song voices made them a laughing stock. Thank goodness they were upgraded straight after, becoming sleek, mechanical and terrifying. The way was paved for today’s army of robotic stormtroopers, marching on your home to convert you to their kind. But I lament the loss of the 1966 originals. Not only are the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet the most unnerving incarnation on a surface level, they are also truest to the ideas that are central to the creatures, the most unsettling Doctor Who has ever produced.

The shortcomings people identify in the first Cybermen costumes are clear enough, but they’re also bound to their circumstances, to the rush of a studio-bound TV production with no budget. Other flawed designs from the series have been made less cumbersome and done away with glaring problems like the visible eyes and sellotape we see here, but it’s rare for such a radical overhaul of style to take place, and so suddenly. When the Cybermen returned in 1967, the cloth faces were gone, replaced with a solid, metallic casing. It’s a shame; the cloth faces look to me like surgical bandaging (or perhaps the wrappings of a mummified corpse), and the resulting ‘patchwork’ quality suggests a desperate attempt to piece together a person from incompatible sources. Just enough remains of the perverted human form to become deeply unsettling.

The same can be said of the original Cybermen voices:

After The Tenth Planet, the voices became a mechanical drone for the remainder of the sixties, while in the seventies and eighties they became more human, more emotive – too far in the other direction. The new series reverted to the computerised buzz of stories like The Invasion (1968). But it was The Tenth Planet that always struck the best balance and conveyed the origins of the creatures. Recognisably human tones, clipped up and stitched together, trying to emulate the humanity that has been sacrificed for the sake of a longer life. The most unnerving thing technology does in day-to-day life is try to pretend it’s a person. Just like these Cybermen. They’re relatively docile. Polite statements are made of the fact that we are obsolete and must become like them to survive. The Tenth Planet shows a much better grasp of the way we design technology to interact with us than any Cybermen story afterwards.

After all, the Cybermen are a human creation. These versions of the creatures keep the closest ties to their creators, and are all the more threatening for it. The Tenth Planet’s plot doesn’t offer much sense of jeopardy, but the idea that it is a close match between human beings and our own technology is more exciting than the army of alien heavies the Cybermen have become. Nearly always, they’re now a seemingly unstoppable mass until they’re suddenly wiped out by a bomb or some other solution that dispatches them all in one go. It’s less satisfying than a hard-fought battle over the future meaning of humanity. Increasingly, too, Cybermen have become more associated in their stories with ideas of mass technology. Enormous factories and production lines, with innocent individuals ensnared within. For me, this also doesn’t always play well to the strengths of the ideas behind them.

When the emphasis is on a massive, unified army, and the threat they pose in terms of brute strength, then the individual, the emotional, the intellectual battles can be buried. The only time the old series focused heavily on an individual’s conversion was in the form of body horror, as Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) undergoes the slow, painful process in Attack of the Cybermen (1985). There was physical agony of the process there, but nothing of its aftermath. This is something the Cybermen’s 21st century revival in 2006 did better. A robotic shell asks about the bridegroom she’s supposed to marry the next morning. Characters we know introduce themselves from within their new bodies before they’re lost in a metal crowd. In 50 years, these moments most effectively channel the horror of the Cybermen. The idea that someone might slip out of consciousness and awake with no feeling towards the world around them or any of the memories they possess. They’re most distressing when it’s clear there are individual human beings still within – the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet have names, remember. Comedy sci-fi names like Gern and Krang, but names nonetheless.

Executed to their full potential, looking and sounding as they did at their beginning, the Cybermen embody the bleakest concept the programme has ever come up with. It emerges best not when they are a gigantic invading force, but when they appear to us as benevolent. They are walking cadavers, and they offer that as the perfect escape from sickness, death and grief. And, most frighteningly, people do surrender themselves willingly. It effectively happens in Rise of the Cybermen (2006), a satire on our slavishness to technology. It happens too in seminal Doctor Who Magazine strip The Flood (2004-5). And the Cybermen attempt to explain and persuade before trying to force submission in The Tenth Planet.

But all too rarely do these instances arise, for they expose best the tragedy of the Cybermen: that they are us, and we will be them. They were never creatures of conquest, but of desperation. They are the ultimate surrender of the human spirit – and the closer they to human beings in design and voice, the better. The first immortal beings Doctor Who ever showed us were ourselves. And we paid a terrible price to get there.

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Ghostwatch (1992)

Twenty-four Hallowe’ens ago, BBC1 broadcast Ghostwatch to a minor furore. Ostensibly a live documentary presented by Michael Parkinson, it examines a supposed haunting in suburban North London, only for the poltergeist at work to use the broadcast as a nationwide séance, terrorising a family and seeking manifestation. The drama follows the narrative path of the climax of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), as a live TV broadcast, and the gaze of the masses upon paranormal events, inadvertently causes catastrophe.

Ghostwatch was billed explicitly as a drama, with a cast list, writers’ credit and an ident revealing it to be part of the BBC’s Screen One strand – all within the opening titles. Coming to it fresh today, it’s sometimes hard to see it as a 1990s answer to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938). For one thing, we can only watch it retrospectively, not as a live event, but also we now live in an age when viewers are more regularly alerted to the vocabulary of TV programmes and genres. (We live in a post-Screenwipe age, is perhaps what I’m suggesting.) If we’re familiar with the grammar of live TV, the nature of its mistakes, the occasional bouts of dead air, then the artifice of Ghostwatch becomes easier to spot. Yet for its flaws by today’s standards, the programme still has the capacity to spook nearly a quarter of a century on.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest and most convincing performances come from those cast members who work primarily as presenters. Watching it, I found some of the ‘civilians’ of the piece to give too refined a performance – knowing, affected, not rough enough around the edges. It wouldn’t be an issue if we were watching a programme working on the vocabulary of a fictional drama, but Ghostwatch’s script is designed to follow that of live television, inarticulate warts and all. When an ordinary person articulates themselves so clearly, so apparently effortlessly, we sense preparation. The frisson of live television dies a little.

I wondered at times whether the studio segments of the programme might have benefitted from an audience – not necessarily a vocal one, but one that might energise the performances within the studio, helping the programme escalate to its climax. Regardless, Michael Parkinson steers the programme very effectively, always maintaining the right tone. Special mention too should go to Craig Charles, sidelined towards the end, but displaying a very clear understanding out on location of just what kind of performance, and what kind of energy, the programme needs to succeed.

Technically as well, Ghostwatch seems just a little too competent for its own good early on. Even now, we tune in to live TV almost hoping for a few cock-ups here and there. As audiences, we quite enjoy disasters like One Direction’s appearance on Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. Glitches like those, including those far less laughable, are part of the joy of a live broadcast – they remind us that what we’re watching genuinely is unfolding before our eyes.  When they’re absent altogether, we start to suspect we’re seeing something altogether safer: exactly what a programme like Ghostwatch doesn’t need.

Yet glitches in the production, if not always in the performances, are often incorporated by design – there is awareness behind the scenes of the need for imperfection. In the rush of the moment, cameras aren’t always well-placed to capture what the programme needs to see. Possible sightings of the ghostly presence, ‘Pipes’, are often just beyond our view, while much of the climax is shrouded in darkness or viewed on infra-red cameras. Increasingly hysterical sounds– often the screams of innumerable terrified cats – are heard from unseen sources. Deeply troubling stories of the house and its previous occupant are recounted piecemeal by old neighbours. We can’t know the full nature of what we’re dealing with. Kept just out of sight, the thrill of the ghost is in the chase, not the capture.

Thanks to the cultural shift brought in by catch-up TV, and our distance from the programme now, elements don’t always spook us as they might have in 1992. The shadow of Pipes is glimpsed in the daughters’ bedroom in North London. Separate versions of the same footage are used in sequence, designed to trick viewers watching live into thinking their own imagination could be at play. At the time, unable to go back and review, that would have stirred the imagination in just the right way. It stirs ours too, but perhaps now only when we can bring ourselves to view the programme as a drama.

Yet fabricated technical imperfections do bring a sense of immediate menace later on. Best of all is when ‘Pipes’ again becomes visible in the bedroom as the camera briefly pans around the room during a poltergeist incident. Suddenly the camera stops, spins back – nothing there now. At once, we’ve just been given a POV shot, and we’re involved in the unfolding events – the cameraman agrees with us. Something is very wrong. Here, at least, we all feel some of the urgent worry that crossed the minds of any viewers taken in in 1992.

While it’s easier now for Ghostwatch to spook us if we look back on it as a fiction, we can still therefore grasp at the fear it provoked in some viewers when its attempts at illusion paid off. Unable to look back on this live programme, they were left at the mercy of its makers to reassure them, only for the makers to prove increasingly incapable of doing so. As glimpses and partial encounters build up within the house, and members of its cast and crew find themselves in extreme danger, the programme reaches a pitch of hysteria. Thanks in no small part to the fact that everything is hinted to us, nothing made explicit.

Its final scene offers no real resolution. The studio is left in darkness, Parkinson wandering aimlessly, the camera out of focus, abandoned by its operator. Nothing is sure of those left in the haunted house, or of those in the studio, or even of the viewers at home, party to this unwitting séance. We’re abandoned in the unknown by the ‘live’ disaster, and without the safety of predetermined narrative structure, we’re left shivering before the potential, unknowable aftermaths. Its blistering ending shows that Ghostwatch knew where its strengths lay all along.

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Reg – BBC, 2016

With the recent verdict of the Hillsborough inquest and ITV’s consequent repeat of Jimmy McGovern’s docudrama Hillsborough (1996), the writer has been in the spotlight over the last couple of months. Now, written with Robert Pugh, his latest drama Reg tells a true story of similar significance with similar righteous anger. Reg Keys, the father of an underequipped serviceman killed in Iraq, honoured his son and sought justice by standing against Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency in the 2005 general election. The drama is a brutal takedown of Blair (only weeks ahead of the Chilcot report), a look at the trials of political campaigning and, most importantly, a tender portrait of two people whose lives forever changed for the worse one day in June 2003.

The grim reality of the film is announced early on by its first use of archive footage from the time. As Reg (Tim Roth) and Sally Keys (Anna Maxwell Martin) see the bodies of their son Tom and his comrades brought home, shots of them are intercut with grainy news coverage from the time. It’s a technique that forbids us from using the drama to distance ourselves comfortably from the truth, and it’s used in increasingly innovative ways throughout.

Not long after this, Reg and Sally’s grief begins to set them against each other, and they have a bitter conversation in their living room as Blair’s 2003 speech to the US Congress goes out on their TV. Blair is a charismatic man, and his jokes land beautifully. But in this new context, as two people coldly discuss the death of their son in a war this man started, every laugh, round of applause and trite commendation of the armed forces grates on our ears. Salt rubbed into the wounds of the bereaved. His statesmanlike exterior is totally deflated seen alongside the emotional damage his actions have wrought. A reminder to beware the charismatic leader – one which, given recent events, we perhaps have yet to acknowledge.

It’s a device used to powerful effect at the climax of the piece as well, when Reg, having come fourth in the general election campaign at Sedgefield, makes a speech damning the war and the decisions behind it. Tim Roth is blended into the real news footage of the count and the announcement, giving a remarkably close duplication of Keys’ delivery. Blair shifts uncomfortably behind him as he speaks, and occasionally, we cut to Keys from the side – seeing a large screen at the side of the room on which a close-up of Blair is projected.

As a result, we have a split screen: on the left, we see Keys, sometimes turning behind him to address Blair directly, and on the right, the projection of Blair, avoiding his gaze. The separation achieved is a vitally important piece of symbolism. A shot of the two men together on the stage, that might be different, that might imply connection, or acknowledgement. Not so here. Blair doesn’t meet Keys’ eyes, doesn’t truly share the same frame, the same world, and we’ve no reason to believe that Keys’ impassioned words get through to him. It also keeps the focus on Blair’s face – an interrogation, an accusation.

Even without footage of the man himself, similar attacks on Blair’s integrity come throughout the film. Following Reg Keys’ campaign, we see not only a grave speech by a war memorial from Frederick Forsyth (Timothy Bentinck), but voters responding positively on the doorstep, their disillusionment with Blair after the war utterly damning. We see the ugly side of political campaigning in this way too, with people on the doorstep even going so far as to blame Reg himself for his son’s death. Their utter lack of compassion shows the inhumanity and indecency that can rear its head in politics. It’s especially powerful when we’ve seen the purity of intention that drives Reg through the task he’s set himself.

This purity is made even clearer by the stark contrast of his own conduct and his campaign manager Bob Clay’s (Ralph Brown). Informed that Sally has fallen ill, perhaps gravely, Bob declines to tell Reg for an hour and a half, so he can give an interview instead. For all he knows, he may stop Reg seeing the last moments of his wife’s life. It isn’t the case ultimately, but it shows that, while Reg is motivated by love of his son and family, and the need for justice, Clay’s motivation is less personal, more vindictive. Here, he’s seen as closer to the cruel people on the doorstep than perhaps he would like to be.

Reg’s reasons are vindicated in his closing speech at the vote count – though not winning, he makes his case. And the film does not end on the note of a ‘bloody nose’ given to Blair, as Clay had fought for – but, much more importantly, on the families of the other five servicemen and women killed alongside Thomas Keys. As their lost loved ones are named individually by the champion of their cause, we cut to the families watching in their homes. One by one, their lost children, husbands, siblings, parents, are commemorated before the eyes of the country – and we see plainly now the true meaning of the campaign.

It was an acknowledgement that people had been wronged by a leader they had trusted, yes, but it was also an expression of human solidarity and sympathy. Reg Keys’ speech is a cathartic point of his and his wife’s struggle with their bereavement – the trajectory of the entire film. Special mention must therefore go to its two lead performances. Roth and Martin give a joint masterclass in understated frailty, and of numb stoicism in grief. Reg’s slow, gentle examination of his son’s body, looking at his wounds and imagining the suffering he endured in his final moments, is heart-breaking in its calm fortitude. So too is Sally’s loving, selfless encouragement of Reg to continue in spite of her failing health and her gradual, quiet descent into an alcohol problem. Theirs are two tender portrayals of people not only betrayed, but left behind, and the film is a moving dedication to their struggle. One that is made all the more poignant by a caption in memory of Sally Keys at the programme’s close.

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Here, she is honoured.

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Colditz: ‘Tweedledum’ (1972)

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Over two series between 1972 and 1974, Colditz told the stories of captured Allied officers, their wide and varied escape attempts and their complex relationships with their German captors. ‘Tweedledum’, its best remembered episode, depicts Wing Commander Marsh (Michael Bryant) feigning insanity in the hope of repatriation. In the process, he wreaks havoc on his genuine mental state, and gains an unlikely protector in the Nazi corporal observing his behaviour. A gripping story, brilliantly realised, it encapsulates much of what we cherish about this age of BBC drama. It’s understandably well-loved by actors too, being, as it is, about acting.

The entire episodes hinges on Marsh’s need to deceive all around him, including those to whom he floats the scheme. So he deceives us too, and as his sanity grows increasingly precipitous, we have no certainty as to whether we are seeing interior anguish or exterior front. In its first cut from the hatching of the plan to Marsh’s first performative trance, the episode initiates a game with us. At once we understand that, like those around Marsh, we can only see the outside. Will he cross the threshold? For the purposes of drama, we expect he will – but how would we know? A sane man won’t tell us, and a madman can’t. An exceedingly clever seduction of the audience.

Marsh’s behaviour becomes steadily more erratic and extreme, yet even then we cannot be fully certain of its true nature. He allows himself to be demeaned on numerous occasions in front of the officers and inmates. He goes out into the courtyard having had a bowl of porridge emptied over his head by Corporal Hartwig (Bernard Kay), later on wetting himself and whimpering like a schoolboy as the Kommandant (Bernard Hepton) greets an important visitor. The timing of that latter incident could well be calculated, triggering as it does a more serious consideration of Marsh’s condition.

But ambiguity is maintained at all times. One moment, Marsh gives the Doc (Geoffrey Palmer) a knowing wink, the next moment he unexpectedly lashes out at another officer: “I never knew he was so strong.” Michael Bryant keeps us guessing, as Marsh isolates himself from the group (at first deliberately). Imposing remarkable self-restraint, he stays silent for most of the episode, communicating what little he chooses, or is able to, facially, physically – not least his apparent regression into a second childhood. It’s no surprise that he received a BAFTA nomination.

The programme does offer some glimpses of the inside as Marsh looks to the sky and toys with a model aeroplane. Fading to footage of planes and birds flying through the air, we see Marsh’s desire to fly again. This is conflated with his witness to an athletic prisoner (Stuart Fell) leaping his way to freedom over a high fence. He and Marsh’s escapes are mirrored, two sides of the same coin. While one flies, Marsh’s desire to do the same plunges him into a prison of a far worse kind. All the while, the same harpsichord piece he plays over and over on a gramophone echoes through his head (in an otherwise musically sparse programme) as he imagines his flight. It forms a part of his fantasy, but he first uses it repetitively to drive his fellow officers to distraction, becoming ultimately unable to stop himself from listening to it. Entrapped, we can find new comforts, only for those comforts to strengthen the trap further.

We can never be sure of its final meaning to Marsh, nor indeed of anything about him by the end. We can be sure, however, of Corporal Hartwig, the Nazi assigned to evaluating Marsh’s behaviour, having before seen his brother confined to an asylum. It’s another cunning trick of the episode. Ostensibly focused on Marsh, the story cannot ground itself in him – the whole point is that we are outside him, and he must remain a mystery. The emotional centre of ‘Tweedledum’, therefore, is a Nazi, and it is Hartwig’s emotional development that pulls us through the episode rather than Marsh’s.

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Hartwig’s behaviour is at first that of a brutish bully, emptying Marsh’s bowl of porridge onto him as mentioned above, after which he stamps on Marsh’s model plane. Yet at this stage, Hartwig is perhaps the only one of them to have had a true taste of madness, in losing his brother, who with his performed insanity Marsh is now insulting. We can look on Hartwig’s behaviour, then, as a justified defence of his brother, while Marsh’s actions earn less of our sympathy on reflection, at least until he reaps his terrible reward.

But it is as Marsh enters into a genuine decline, pitiful in his growing helplessness, that Hartwig finds repentance for his previous unpleasantness. Reliving the loss of his brother, he bestows kindness on Marsh that he cannot on his sibling. Gifting him a new model plane to replace the broken one, he sublimates his absent fraternal relationship here. It’s no clearer than the scene in the courtyard where Marsh is left out of a football game. Too slow to join in, the other players kick the ball away from him, and Marsh cries in the corner, the lost boy. At once, Hartwig steps in to look after his charge. Speaking as Kay always does, with the deep, comforting voice of someone wiser than you, Hartwig reassures Marsh and holds him, stemming his own tears as the camera pulls back, unable to avert its gaze from the embrace of two lonely men.

That corner is the spot of their goodbye as well, as Marsh is successfully repatriated at terrible cost. It has become by now the place where he shelters from the world, the place where he had the greatest kindness bestowed upon him. It’s a heartbreaking spectacle, as Marsh, the last remnants of himself gone, bellows that he won’t go (“I live here!”), and Hartwig, with a kindly smile, loses his brother all over again. As the escort drives away, he’s left alone, his back turned to us, gently grinding his fist against a wall. His true face is hidden from us, as indeed it has been throughout the episode – another piece of skilful restraint and powerful understatement.

Given Bryant’s BAFTA nomination, it seems unjust that Kay didn’t receive one two – for one performance is nothing to the story without the other. While Bryant’s  performance as Marsh is the bleak tragedy of the episode, Kay’s turn as Hartwig offers the hope that makes it bearable. ‘Tweedledum’ at its most basic can be described as the tale of a man driving himself to insanity, but it’s really the story too of a man finding catharsis by reliving the loss of a loved one. And, like much of the programme, it is a story of human relationships of depth and complexity can flourish across even the most terrible divide in the most terrible of times.

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