‘Doctor Who: City Of Death’ at the BFI

Rob Fairclough reports from the BFI’s Season 17 Blu-ray preview event.

The screening of Doctor Who: City of Death at the BFI Southbank on Sunday 5 December had a decidedly old-school feel. For those of us lucky enough to be there in 2013 when the British Film Institute presented a Doctor Who event every month to celebrate the series’ 50th anniversary, the abundance of guests – four on stage, with video and written input from two others – recalled the halcyon days of surprise appearances and special clips. Even the fabled quiz, in which the audience the audience could win a variety of Time Lord goodies, was back in full effect.

City of Death is the ideal story to fuel this nostalgic atmosphere, though it’s funny how perceptions of popular culture can change. Back in 1979, when the story was first shown, as a wide-eyed fifteen year-old I loved it – partly because it was so funny – but guarded my opinions, because the prevailing mood in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society that I belonged to was that the programme was becoming “too silly”. City of Death was deemed just about acceptable by the DWAS upper echelons, even if they accepted the witty scene of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese playing two pretentious art gallery visitors with gritted teeth.

Fast forward 42 years and, like the proverbial fine wine, City of Death has satisfyingly matured. I’d argue that this is the first true “timey-wimey” story in Doctor Who’s history, with a clever plot that irreverently plays with the concept of time, aiding and abetting the most audacious criminal enterprise in history. Co-star Julian Glover clearly thought so, as he was reduced to fits of giggles when recalling it on stage.

Co-host Dick Fiddy suggested that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy writer Douglas Adams’s “fingerprints were all over it”. That’s true: almost every line of dialogue boasts the then Doctor Who script editor’s intellectual wit, which Glover revealed was made even more effective by Tom Baker and companion actress Lalla Ward rewriting their lines – with Adams’s blessing – to make the dialogue “more conversational”. Boy does it show: City of Death is like a finely crafted drawing room comedy, albeit with a one-eyed green alien.

How times change. Back in 1979, fandom roared with approval when Adams and his producer Graham Williams left as the end of Season 17. Goodbye “undergraduate humour” (whatever that is)! Goodbye crap monsters! Goodbye wobbly sets! Hello state-of-the-art video effects! Hello lavish scenery!… and hello dialogue so humourless it made Tom Baker fall off a pylon and regenerate.

It’s gratifying to see that the world eventually caught up with City of Death. Numerous genre series that came after it, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to Preacher (2016-19) to The Umbrella Academy (2019- ) and, significantly, 21st century Doctor Who – have flourished with the same mix of ironic, sometimes very dark humour and fantasy. On 7 December, it was good to see City of Death finally get its day in the sun.

First among the guests was the son of the story’s director, Michael Hayes. The fifteen year-old me would have been so jealous if I’d know that the fifteen year-old Patrick Hayes had accompanied his father on the story’s location filming in Paris, helping the minimal unit film, guerilla-style, all the scenes of Tom, Lalla and guest star Tom Chadbon. What a blast that must have been.

Justin Johnson, Dick Fiddy and Patrick Hayes.

Hayes senior had a Shakespearean background and, when asked to direct Doctor Who, Patrick revealed that his father “was not exactly scathing, but shall we say that Doctor Who wasn’t top of his viewing list. He came round very quickly, and a lot of that is due to Graham Williams and Dad getting on very well, and I remember them really teaming up with Douglas Adams on City. Dad then got caught up in the wonderful energy that was in the programme at that time, and brought to it his Shakespearean history and love of Alfred Hitchcock. That’s why we have what we have.” I positively glowed when Patrick stated out of the three Doctor Who stories his father directed, “City of Death was his favourite.”

Next up was production assistant Rosemary Crowson. Following a successful recce, she remembered that the shoot didn’t go quite according to plan: “When we went back, we found out it was a Bank Holiday, and none of the locations we’d chosen could be used. Poor old John Nathan-Turner [later Doctor Who’s longest serving producer] had to go off and find other places while we were filming.”

Dick Fiddy and Rosemary Crowson.

Tongue in check, Rosemary observed that “To work with Tom Chadbon, Julian Glover and Tom Baker on one show – that was quite hard work, actually”. Reflecting the good natured atmosphere of the production all those years ago, Julian, who was at RADA with Rosemary, called out, “Thanks very much!” Interviewer Dick Fiddy came in with a swift and timely save, neatly clarifying that the experience was hard work “in a good way.”

Costume designer Doreen James couldn’t be present, but sent along some design sketches to show, together with some interesting notes that Dick read out. With Lalla cast as the second Romana, the character’s costumes were “moving away from the elegant fashion model, to [a person] of youth, and an innocent exploring life. When Tom Baker suggested a school uniform” – cue much hilarity from the audience – “it naturally fitted the idea of jacket and skirt. I ceased my search for Lalla’s look and developed a ‘school look’ that would avoid any suggestion of St Trinians’, with a subtly stylish tunic. This uniform provided a contrast to the sophisticated style of clothes worn by the Countess.”

Doreen James’ costume designs (1).

The endearingly cost-conscious nature of Doctor Who in the late 1970s was evident from Doreen’s next statement: “I would like to express my gratitude to Julian Glover for wearing his own white suit. I added black and green to his colour scheme and his generous act helped extend my meagre budget.” Like just about everybody on City of Death, Doreen concluded by saying, “We all have happy memories of working on this production.”

Doreen James’ costume designs (2).

Sound restoration expert Mark Ayres was next in the procession of guests. City hadn’t offered him any challenges – “a couple of edit repairs, and that was it really” – but he was there to show a clip from Destiny of the Daleks, which boasted one of two 5:1 mixes which will be available for the story in the Season 17 box set. Mark had had fun was the second, as he’d been able to electronically enhance Dalek creator Davros’s voice – so he sounded more or less like he did in Genesis of the Daleks – and had added ambient sounds from the first Dalek story to Skaro’s aural background. I love that the Blu-ray box sets have room for this kind of technical wish-fulfilment.

Dick Fiddy and Mark Ayres.

The last episode of City of Death was followed by a generous selection of clips from extras on the box set – too generous, it has to be said, as the thing is out in two weeks, and most of the audience had probably already ordered it – which was followed by the main event, co-host Justin Johnson interviewing Count Scarlioni himself, Scaroth, the last of the Jaggeroth (if Douglas Adams had liked The Beatles as much as the Rolling Stones, would it have been the Lennonoth?) – Mr Julian Glover.

His Scarlioni/Scaroth is one of the best ‘villain’ performances in Doctor Who. For once, you felt that the increasingly omnipotent Fourth Doctor was evenly matched by Scarlioni’s guile, charm, arrogance, sharp wit and cunning. Throughout his enviable career, Julian has played so many characters like that, but the man himself is warmly funny, approachable and an all round trouper. Take today: the series he’s currently working on was shut down by Covid on Friday, and the production team wanted him to work on Sunday to film what they needed to finish. Julian refused: he told them he was committed to the City of Death event, and would work through the night on Sunday. He’s 86.

Justin Johnson and Julian Glover.

The man’s a class act equally at home in pop culture. While he’s most proud of the season of Shakespeare plays he did for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for which he received a coveted Olivier Award, he’s equally proud of his roles in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Referring to the latter movie elicited some of Julian’s famously indiscreet humour: “What would you do for the chance of eternal life? You’d kill your mother!”

He’s proud of City of Death too, which he considers “a great piece of work… nothing to do with me being in it.” One thing I didn’t know was that Julian’s wife, Isla Blair, was supposed to portray the Countess. He was disappointed until he saw that her replacement was Catherine Schell, at which point he swiftly decided there was “no problem.” The rascal.

It was a great day. One of the best Doctor Who events the BFI has ever staged, in my opinion. A special video introduction was recorded by Tom Baker, himself 87, where he did that endearing thing of pretending to be able to see the audience from inside the screen: “Some of you have changed… Hello, everybody. You mustn’t be frightened, it happens to us all, and that’s a great comfort to me as I look at you.”

Tom earned a cheer for that. Well, he would – he’s a (mischievous) living legend. Thank you, BFI Southbank, for bringing two legends together and making so many fond memories live again.

❉ ‘Doctor Who: City of Death’ took place at BFI Southbank , Sunday 5 December, 2021. Photos © Robert Fairclough, 2021.

❉ Pre-order Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 17 from Amazon, Zavvi, Rarewaves and HMV in the UK.

 Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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