Thursday, 21 November 2013

An Adventure in Space and Time

"You can't rewrite history. Not one line."

I'm watching the rerun of An Unearthly Child on BBC 4 as I write this, with a big grin on my face. Admittedly, this is mostly because tomorrow I get to see my fiancée again after eleven long days but, blimey, what a piece of telly that was! A real tribute, and amazing, from my perspective as a fan who knows about this stuff, that a drama is being shown on BBC 2 about this of all things.

The cast is superb, but is very much led by David Bradley, who simply is Bill Hartnell. His mannerisms when playing the Doctor are perfect, and the similarities and differences with the "real" Hartnell are brilliant too: the clip of the interview with Hartnell shown after the programme, presumably a major source of research for Bradley, shows us that he nailed it; Hartnell as himself was irascible, considerably less posh, and very prickly about his status as an actor.

Mark Gatiss' script is excellent too; indeed, this sort of thing plays exactly to the strengths of the arch-nostalgic. Gatiss takes the messy, complex reality of television production and selects he people and events on which to focus. The result is a tight, focused drama with real heart. The presentation of Hartnell, in particular, is a fine line; Gatiss and Bradley don't shy in any way from his difficult side, but we can't help but like this deeply emotional man who cares deeply beneath the gruff exterior, and who delights in his unexpected popularity with children.

The script judges correctly how much to show of his rather bigoted opinions, I think, with just one quip to Waris Hussein about A Passage to India being a "one way trip" hinting at a side of Hartnell which would not much endear him to us. But there's a much greater focus on the tribulations faced by, and solidarity between, "the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird". We first meet Verity Lambert (the excellent Jessica Raine) on an uber-trendy party straight out of Mad Men. This is her world; metropolitan, sophisticated and mostly populated by women like herself, who stop to turn on the telly to see Valentina Tereshkova do her bit for the cosmic sisterhood. The BBC, ruled by middle aged men in NHS specs who address Verity as "dear lady" is manifestly not her world, and she has to fight against its misogyny every step of the way.

Of course, Waris Hussein constantly suffers the racist digs that would have been everywhere in 1963, and can't get served at the BBC bar without Verity's help. There are also hints at his sexuality; he is doubly alienated, and not exactly the sort of person whom one would imagine getting on with Hartnell. And yet, a couple of years later, Hartnell is nostalgic for both of them, trapped in a show he loves but with familiar, friendly faces dropping away. The recreation of the speech from The Massacre may have used a little artistic licence, but it was wonderful, and as sublime a performance from Bradley here as the original was for Hartnell.

The whole thing is beautifully shot, and there are plenty of lovely touches, from the cameos by Jean Marsh, Anneke Wills, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford to the Cyberman who is allowed to puff away on a fag in his fibreglass suit by the 1963 Health and Safety bods. The many recreations- of The Daleks, The Edge of Destruction, Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror and many more are great fun. We open with the 1963 BBC ident, a lovely touch, and there are brief nods to Delia Derbyshire's work on the theme tube and Peter Brachaki's jobsworth genius on the TARDIS control room. We close with a highly appropriate cameo from Matf Smith. But this is Bradley's and Gatiss' triumph, and a triumph it surely is.

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