❉ 45 years on, Carnival of Monsters is still top of the pops! Ian Potter tells us why.
You can’t say Obverse Books’ Black Archive range doesn’t mirror the diverse styles and approaches of Doctor Who itself, not to mention its eclectic brew of inspirations and influences. Its last five volumes have explored everything from notions of authorship in a collaborative medium, Ancient Egyptian mythology and arcana, and the morality of war and pacifism, to BBC politics and the chaos of the show’s most turbulent period and what happens when scientific enquiry meets post-Gothic fantasy. If this all sounds a bit hifalutin’ and you think the purpose of show like Doctor Who should be “to entertain, simply to amuse – nothing political, nothing serious”, The Black Archive series is probably not the range for you.
However, if you believe that a key feature of an enduring popular culture artefact is its ability to be offer multiple readings, and be enjoyed on more than one level – let’s say, the kind of person who enjoys a site like We Are Cult – the Black Archive offers fresh perspectives on the show’s stories that are intelligent, stimulating and entertaining, just like the series itself.
The latest addition to the Archive is no exception, and it tackles a Doctor Who serial that is the perfect candidate for this range: Robert Holmes’ surreal, satirical and self-aware Carnival Of Monsters, a mid-period Third Doctor story. Starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning at the top of their game, Carnival Of Monsters boasts strong support from a brilliant guest cast that includes Pertwee’s former Navy Lark shipmate Tenniel Evans, veteran character actor Leslie Dwyer, Doctor Who regulars Michael Wisher and Peter Halliday and Ian Marter, who joined the series as a companion in Tom Baker’s debut, December 1974’s Robot.
Carnival of Monsters first aired at the peak of glam rock’s popularity, in January 1973, when The Sweet raced to the number one spot with Blockbuster, and glam rock’s aesthetic of artifice is alive and well here with deliberately gaudy costumes, set designs and camera tricks that wouldn’t be out of place in a typical 1973 edition of Top Of The Pops – even 1920s deb Claire Daly’s look wouldn’t have been out of place in Nova magazine or Biba.
It’s the most of-its-time Doctor Who serial during a period where the series reflected contemporary concerns of the day such as mass production, pollution, Buddhism, the Common Market, apartheid and industrial action; and its self-aware script, populated with bureaucratic caricatures and meta-commentary about the nature of television itself, is not a million miles away from the proto-postmodern games of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, riding high on the cult popularity of its third series, albums, books and about to do battle with Dame David Bowie as the must-see nationwide tour of 1973.
The serial also endeared itself to a younger generation of Who fans in the New Romantic heyday when it was repeated as part of the fondly remembered ‘The Five Faces of Doctor Who’ repeat season in late 1981, thus becoming one of a handful of TV serials from the show’s first eighteen years that could be enjoyed anew first-hand as opposed to second-hand via the then-undisputed wisdom of fandom elders and the Target books retellings. In the digital era, it’s also enjoyed two walks round the deck on DVD, with a 2002 release when the range was in its infancy and a more expansive special edition as part of the second Regenerations box set in 2011.
All in all, this makes Carnival of Monsters one of the most exposed and widely-loved Doctor Who serials of the twentieth century. For this reviewer, it’s certainly in my Top 10 of all-time favourites. Despite this, it’s never really been subject to the appreciation and close reading that it richly deserves. Perhaps that’s because it’s too good at being a subversive piece of entertainment. All the elements that might put off more lofty-minded fans with an aversion of anything daft – the kind who mistake po-faced grittiness or self-conscious literary and cinematic references in Doctor Who stake a claim towards a more mature, adult take on the show – are on display here in abundance, and having great fun with it in the most audience-inclusive way. From the deliberately gaudy costumes of the Lurmans, the flirtation with camp sensibilities – this is the story which features Doctor Who having a conversation in polari! – to lampshading the show’s cliché of capture-escape-capture by having it not only explicitly commented upon by the characters (Fourth wall? What fourth wall?), but also used as a plot device.
Fortunately, the bona omi putting Carnival of Monsters under the micro(Mini?)scope for this Black Archive is writer Ian Potter, not known for taking himself too seriously, and he’s delivered a volume that, like the story, takes place on multiple levels.
For those fans who enjoy the details of the re-drafts and re-writes that follow a TV production’s development from shooting script to rehearsal script, and thence from live editing and last-minute decisions on the studio floor through to transmission cuts and repeat edits, Carnival of Monsters is a great example of how a Doctor Who serial passes through many hands. It’s a particularly good example, as its director and producer, Barry Letts, utilised all of the tools of colour television at his disposal, to varying degrees of effectiveness, and the series exists in a number of discrete edits including an early cut of episode one which was accidentally used on the VHS release.
Furthermore, Potter has rifled through script revisions and production paperwork at the BBC’s nerd-nirvana that is the Written Archive Centre to highlight how both Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks tweaked scenes, leaving their own detectable marks, which rather shatters the fanciful notion held amongst a tiny minority of fans that legendary writer Robert Holmes was an auteur among Who writers – a notion incompatible with the collaborative nature of television and its conveyer belt-like turnover.
In other questions of authorship, Potter picks through some other areas of Holmes’ plot ingredients to offer some fresh interpretations of elements that can credibly be related back to his wartime experiences, but he’s at his best when tackling the games of artifice and realism in Carnival Of Monsters that make it such an effectively weird story.
For example, attention is drawn to how the fake, studio-bound, styrofoam world of Inter Minor, with its CSO windows, false perspective and proscenium arch compositing, is the ‘real’ story setting, despite all of the above subconsciously telling your telly-literate brain otherwise, whereas the ‘fake’ 1926 of the ocean liner inside the Miniscope feels more realistic thanks to the typically credible and widely acclaimed efforts of BBC costume and set design in evoking a period setting with all its trappings, all of which turns viewers’ understanding of realness vs artifice in television grammar on its head, to give Carnival Of Monsters its disquieting, surreal, effect of, as Roxy Music were singing around this time, “what’s real and make-believe?”
Potter is equally insightful and intelligent when considering not only the political antics of the calculating Minorian Kalik and his sidekicks but also what the juxtaposition of the 1920-based passengers and crew of the S.S. Bernice and the sketched-in political climate of Inter Minor (Holmes was very deft at world-building through dialogue alone) has to say about imperialism, colonialism and cultural attitudes, in the fictional Inter Minor, the very real British Empire of 1926, and the UK of 1972/1973 as it entered the Common Market. There’s also lots of new facts and theories particularly on the influence of Holmes’ military experiences on his work.
We Are Cult caught up with Ian Potter, author of Black Archive #16: Carnival Of Monsters, writer, Ian Potter, to find out what it was like to go inside the black archives…
Hi Ian, can you tell us a little about how you came to write for the Black Archive, and why Carnival of Monsters?
When the Black Archive was first announced publicly I wondered if I could do one and pitched Carnival of Monsters very informally to Phillip Purser-Hallard and Obverse to see whether they thought I had the chops. I thought of Carnival first because I’d always thought it was rather clever in the way the real world was set in a studio and contained artificial worlds on film, the exact opposite of what we’d expect in a 1970s BBC drama. I also knew there’d be mileage in how Barry Letts restructured the story in the edit and I reckoned there might be a few interesting to things to say about class and language. I also had a strong suspicion Holmes had taken inspiration for some of the serial’s strongest images in an earlier TV show. Phil seemed to think that sounded OK and as I’d written a couple of short stories for him in the past I was able to skip auditioning more formally.
Can you tell us about the journey from pitch to publication? What have range editors Phillip and Jim been like to work with?
Phil was very enthusiastic and patient as the book sat on the back burner for a while while I wrote some other things, and tinkered away getting research materials together, but by the time I was actually writing the Black Archive was doing so well it was going monthly and there were going to be two range editors. Phil very kindly asked if I’d mind being edited by James Cooray Smith instead of him. I was delighted, even though I was sorry not to be working with Phil, because Jim had written the really standout Black Archive on The Massacre which felt like a gold standard to aspire too. I had a lovely drink with Jim at the BFI Missing Believed Wiped in 2016 when we chatted through the project some more and he proved to be just the star in person he is in print. Jim then got to carry Phil’s baton and be even more patient and enthusiastic as I worked through the book last year, and was particularly brilliant when I had horrible Word document problems in late autumn 2017 that lost thousands of words of revisions. No one killed anyone.
Carnival Of Monsters is a story that literally works on different levels, and is arguably the first properly ‘postmodern’ Doctor Who story (Gareth Roberts: “There is no story like Carnival of Monsters before Carnival of Monsters – gaudy, hilarious, too clever for kids, unashamedly intellectual – afterwards there are tons…”) – which makes it an ideal candidate for the Black Archive; did you find there was enough going on in this story for it to lend itself to the approach you’ve taken here?
Carnival is a really rich story to explore, partly because of Holmes’ writing which is full of little evocative clues for further investigation, and partly because we have a surprising amount of production paperwork that helps us trace its evolution. Crucially, it’s a product of lots of hands, all of which pull the initial storyline into new and unexpected shapes. It also seemed to me to be a story that, as well as being full of thrills and spills and self-mocking fun, was quite explicitly dealing with class and race. I think Gareth Roberts is spot on in identifying Carnival as one of the first of a new kind of Doctor Who. It manages to be deadly serious, very silly and address several audiences at once. I think that’s why it endures- it’s far cleverer and better made than in needs to be.
Carnival’s author Robert Holmes is the most venerated of the ‘classic’ series, although as the book points out, his script editor and producer’s fingerprints are detectable on various script revisions and redrafts; where do you stand on the ‘cult of Bob’ – an auter theory isn’t really compatible with how television, especially television like Dr Who, was made in the 70s is it?
Auteur theory doesn’t really add up that much in film either, to be honest. While it’s more hierarchical than TV, film’s still the work of lots of people, ideally all coming together to enhance each other’s work rather than diminish it. Even this slim book has had four authors really, with Phil, Jim and Obverse boss Stuart Douglas all coming together to rob me of my God-given right to make silly jokes in footnotes. Damn their wise eyes. I
think Auteur theory can still be a useful filter to apply when approaching a piece of work as long as you don’t treat it as the truth. Applying that mindset I did find it striking just how much Holmes returned to themes and situation in his writing, and was intrigued to see elements in some of his Doctor Who work (including Carnival) that seems to draw on his personal history. What then brings you up short is the discovery that some of the bits you imagine are pure Bob Holmes are actually actors’ embellishments or Terrance Dicks’ rewrites!
I do think Bob Holmes is probably the best writer 20th Century Doctor Who had for the combination of dialogue that actors could get hold of and that subtly revealed story, and for his wit and taste for macabre, but inevitably staring at the work close up you occasionally see moments where he’s busking or vamping. Episode 4 of Carnival of Monsters has a couple of slightly awkward moments where we realise there’s a bit of Vorg’s backstory that really should have sketched in earlier and a surprising inconsistency in what had appeared to be a fully-imagined Cosmos. Oddly, these tiny slips end up rather endearing, and you find yourself catching a glimpse of Holmes as someone rather like Vorg- a showman improvising desperately up against the clock.
In a way Carnival of Monsters is a story that gets away with being both smart and silly; it draws on some evergreen themes and motifs such as colonialism and imperialism, language and register, xenophobia, bread and circuses, etc. – rubbing next to glam rock clobber, Pythonesque bureaucratic stereotypes and good old fashioned capture/escape peril and pursuit. With monsters. Are there any other stories in Who’s history that manage to pull off the deceptively difficult silly/serious multi-layered trick, and what if any modern Who story could be described as Carnival’s equivalent?
I think the template Carnival sets is followed up fairly obviously in The Sun Makers and so-called McCoy “oddballs” like Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, but more subtly informs a lot of Doctor Who from the mid 1970s on. It’s a kids adventure show played just straight enough for them to buy the jeopardy as real, but full of absurdity, gags and serious points to engage adults too. It’s tonally quite an odd thing and it can turn on a sixpence. I see quite a lot of it in Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s visions of Doctor Who. Gridlock and The Beast Below for example both do that thing of looking at modern Britain through a bizarre science fiction prism and both set their action across different physical levels which is something it seems Holmes often sought to do. Actually Carnival, Gridlock and The Beast Below all feature chaps in bowler hats as well. That’s very ‘Holmesian’, isn’t it?
What was the most interesting aspect of revisiting Carnival of Monsters and putting it under the microscope for this book? Did you come away with any fresh or unusual new takes on the series or the story that you hadn’t appreciated before?
The thing writing the book really brought home to me was just how very clever the three main architects of Carnival (Holmes, Dicks and Letts) had been, both in constructing and reconstructing it. I’m pleased to say my admiration for them was only increased by close study. I’m afraid I rather go to town in the book’s alarmingly distended appendix on just how the script was re-edited for transmission, but it’s an impressive bit of magic that’s pretty much invisible, so I naturally wanted to spoil the illusion at length for anyone as obsessed as I am with seeing how tricks are done. The two things that really blew me away, were piecing together how one of Holmes’ recurrent images (explosive Marsh Gas!) might just have connected to his personal history and being given access to rehearsal scripts for three episodes that the BBC Written Archives don’t hold. My mouth flapped open when I realised one key aspect of the story was completely different in Holmes first draft. It almost hit the floor when I realised one of the most famous bits of all isn’t by Holmes at all.
What was your goal when writing this volume and what do you hope the reader will take from this book?
If nothing else I hope people come away from the book with a greater understanding of how brilliant, cheeky and moral a piece of Doctor Who this is, and with a bit of an insight into the process that made it that.
❉ ‘The Black Archive #16: Carnival Of Monsters’ by Ian Potter was published by Obverse Books on 27 January 2018, RRP 3.99 – £7.99. Click here to buy!