‘The Crusade’: A Retrospective

❉ 53 years on, The Crusade is still considered to be one of the finest Doctor Who serials of its time…

In 1965, Easter Sunday fell on April 18. The day before, the fourth episode of the DoctorWho story The Crusade was transmitted. It seemed quite appropriate to feature the Doctor in the Holy Land during Holy Week, and no one seemed to have been offended from either side of the religious divide. Neither were there any protests concerning two English actors ‘blacking up’ to make them appear as Saladin and Saphadin, the two Muslim leaders fighting the Christian armies in Palestine. Legend has it that due to the nature of the story, it was decided not to offer it up for sale to territories in the Middle East. Instead they could get straight onto the excitement that is The Space Museum. Perhaps as a result of this, only the one episode of the story survived in the BBC’s archives until 1998.

Resurrection, the point of Easter, is rather appropriate for The Crusades. The first episode, The Lion, was rediscovered as a battered film print in New Zealand. Six months later after its return was announced, it was released along with its other episode and The Space Museum on a VHS cassette. This was accompanied by a CD which contained the soundtrack to the two missing episodes, The Knights of Jaffa and The Warlords.

For me, this was the last ‘New Who’ to be experienced, save for a few Galaxy 4 episodes and the odd scene missing from episodes. Bootleg audios of these two stories were extremely hard, if not downright impossible, to find. Suddenly, there were, sitting on a shelf in HMV one Saturday morning in spring. I think I watched The Lion three or four times in a row before I was sated. If that wasn’t enough, until that very month, there had been no visual record of the episode in photo form – otherwise known as telesnaps – known to exist. Visually we fans had little idea what to expect. As if by magic, telesnaps from the missing episodes had been recently discovered, and printed in Doctor Who Magazine. These were a perfect companion to the audios.

The Crusade is still considered to be one of the finest Doctor Who serials from its time, mainly because, as with most of the programme’s excursions into history, there is a very serious and adult streak to its story-telling, mainly due to the script written by former script editor David Whitaker. By his own telling, director Douglas Camfield was impressed by the scripts. Not a single word needed to be changed, and this would prove to be a quite rare occurrence for Whitaker, whose Doctor Who work is famous for having to be heavily edited. This is what happens when an editor is let off the leash.

Historical stories were starting to become more of a hindrance than a bonus. The previous excursion into history had been The Romans, and an attempt was made by the new story editor and author, Dennis Spooner, to try and do something different by introducing blatant comedy into the grim proceedings of slave trafficking and court assassinations. By contrast, The Crusade plays it absolutely straight, although there are a few comic moments allowed through the fussy nature of some of the minor characters such as the court chamberlain and the duplicitous shop keeper Ben Daheer.

The story is told with great economy. Barely have the time travellers stepped outside of the TARDIS and into the forests outside Jaffa, when they are caught up in an ambush. Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor and Ian engage in heroic sword fights against the villain of the piece, the Emir, El Akir and his men. There is so much narrative packed into the story that four episodes is not enough. The fourth and final episode of The Crusade cracks on at such a pace, you really feel the story could have benefited from at least one more instalment. Four episodes became the norm for a historical since The Romans, because the science fiction stories were more popular with the audience, not to mention more expensive, and needed extra episodes to help pad out the budget. Costume drama may have been the BBC’s forte, but stories like The Web Planet featured a planet ruled by giant ants and butterflies, which was not often seen on the BBC…

This had finished before The Crusade and attracted large viewing figures (if not high appreciation figures). Furthermore, rather than have a historical every other story, the pattern was now established that we would visit history every other two stories, and there was no guarantee they would be free from a science fiction presence other than the Doctor and his friends, as The Time Meddler would show in a few months time.

The problem with historicals was if they accidentally clashed or replicated, another production, especially one made by a different drama department. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte had appeared in the September 1964 Doctor Who series, The Reign of Terror, and then at the end of the same month, there he was in The Wednesday Play: Catch as Catch Can – starring Kenneth Williams as the Corsican general…

To avoid any such clash again, the serials department which made Doctor Who, vetoed any historical setting after 1600 (and thirteen years later, why vampires were forbidden in the 1977 series of Doctor Who). This meant John Lucarotti could not write a story set within the Indian mutiny during this month, and chose Ericson the Viking instead, but obviously neglected to tell Dennis Spooner, who featured Vikings in his next Doctor Who story. Oh dear. Communication was not a strong point in 1965. Yet such a veto meant interesting and unusual periods of history could be chosen, which may as well have been an alien world for children, and I dare say, most adults.

At the heart of The Crusades is an attempt by King Richard to find a peaceful and traditional solution to war, and failing miserably. The differences between their two cultures and religions prevented his sister, Joanna, from agreeing to marry Saladin’s brother. Or to put it another way, she blew her top and threatened to have Richard excommunicated by the Pope. This is one of the stand out scenes from a magnificent production as actors Julian Glover and Jean Marsh vent their fury at one another, striding from one beautiful set to another. In the final episode, Glover nearly steals the episode with his only scene as the King, bidding farewell to the Doctor and Vicki, before collapsing into prayer, begging Holy Sepulchre to help him win his forth-coming battle for Jerusalem.

The Crusades was a great favourite with its cast as well as its director. The Doctor Who budget was not large enough to afford guest star actors. Peter Butterworth, who would play the Meddling Monk in ten weeks time, was almost as expensive as William Hartnell, or the rest of the cast put together. Julian Glover is regarded as the first guest star Doctor Who ever attracted, although George Colouris in 1964’s The Keys of Marinus, may disagree. The rest of the cast was made up partly from people Douglas Camfield had worked with before, or fresh faces like Petra Markham, sister of the make-up designer, Sonia.

In our softened age, where we like our children to be protected from life’s little nasties, a story like The Crusade would barely be tolerated. One strong scene features Barbara, played by Jacqueline Hill. She is on the run from El Akir, and has been taken to safety by Haroun, whose family had also suffered from the war lord. He gives her his knife, which he asks her to use on his daughter – and then herself – should she fall into the hands of the Emir. One shot shows her comforting his daughter when soldiers come looking for them, and suddenly she is aware she is holding the knife at the same time.

When El Akir does finally catch up with her, he promises Barbara that the only enjoyment she can look forward to is death, and that is a long way off. Implied or threatened sexual violence and sadism was subtly hinted at in Doctor Who during this period, and often aimed at Barbara, who was a mature figure. The excellent book of the story, which David Whitaker created a little while later, went further and he had her whipped: ‘Your tender flesh…is about to feel my first caresses.’

The direction is rock-solid, even during those awkward studio skirmish scenes in the first episode. Sword fighting is not advisable in a ‘live’ studio. It is always best to pre-film such scenes, and we can see one such example as Ian, played by the solid William Russell, backs out of camera shot and into the pre-filmed sword fight with Derek Ware, here doubling up as a Saracen. Douglas Camfield liked to have some action going on in the background to scenes, and it was a surprise first time round to spot William Hartnell in the back of a scene, indulging in a little sword play himself! There are other wonderful directorial moments, such as how the camera lingers upon Bernard Kay’s Saladin and his immobile face. He is shrouded by veils, and cannot be seen by El Akir as he boasts that he has captured the King back in the woods. The Lion was only Camfield’s fourth directed episode of any drama, and it is masterful.

“Happy Easter to all of you at home”, as the Doctor never said back in 1965.

❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield will be released by Miwk Publishing next month.  Click here to pre-order.

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