Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wibbsey and Company

Here's a flashback to 2011, and a few pages from my diary, when we were recording one of my Doctor Who stories in Soho for Audiogo.


It’s the first day of summer. My third summer that’s seen me make little trips to London for these days of recording. The scripts start on January the first – and I can’t believe we’re here already. I had a night in the Academy hotel and an evening at the Rising Sun with Jim, Swyrie, Blair, Ian – the fellas from the Urbane Squalor discussion group. Wednesday morning I’ve got a red wine headache and the sun is out. I stop for honey and yoghurt and coffee – and then a bacon sandwich in Soho.

I’m nervous – because of my arguments with Michael over the scripts these past few months. My almost throwing in the towel several times. My feeling that the scripts were being taken off me.

And I’m nervous because today’s episode riffs shamelessly off Nicholas and Alexandra, that great film. Tom’s being asked to reprise Rasputin. He has pages of dialogue with himself. It’s going to be demanding in all sorts of ways. I’ve called my monsters the Skishtari – and I can just see that’s going to play havoc with a cast Sue Jameson laughingly calls ‘the geriatric Doctor and his geriatric friends’.

At five to nine I head up to the top floor of Fitzroy Post.

Everyone’s there. Together again…

Michael hands me a cast list and the first thing I find is they’ve got Michael Jayston to play the Tsar again. Now I’m even more nervous.


‘Ahh, Michael’s here now, so everything is all right! All is well!’

It’s about 3pm and Tom’s tired. Today we’ve kept him later than his usual knock-off time. He’s never worked later than two in the afternoon for years. Today we’re doing ‘Tsar Wars’, and it’s got funny complications to do with a large cast, and doubling of roles.

Tom’s happy because his old pal Michael Jayston turns up on time. They exchange huge actorly roars when he comes into the studio to do his stint as the robot Tsar. The scene is a dinner party of aristocratic androids, and speech-making and tense exchanges. Between takes the actors gossip and reminisce and crack up with laughter. The small studio’s been full all day, and there’s been a lot of laughter.

‘That Michael Sheen is extraordinary,’ says Tom. They’re talking about who’s any good these days. ‘He was in that Kenneth Williams thing. I don’t know why they did a film about a vicious little pouf like him. Never had a good word to say about anyone.’

The day is filled with Tom’s favourite sayings: ‘Fuck a duck!’ when he’s made a mistake. Calling, ‘Lyndsey!’ when he can’t find the right page, and Lyndsey has to run from the control room into the studio to help him, calmly, efficiently. Today everyone’s losing their pages and she bursts in, crying out: ‘What are you DOING with them all?’

During a photo session Tom gleefully describes J R Ackerley’s book, ‘My Dog Tulip.’ ‘Another fucking pouf, and a canine fucker to boot!’

Other Bakerisms… ‘Misplaced fucking commas. Our writer’s translating from the fucking Albanian again.’  ‘Hey ho.’ ‘I’ll start again. I must be too fucking nervous again, eh!’ And the usual raft of sexist gibes and tales. ‘Crawl? I can crawl! On all fours I’m another man altogether! You should see, Mrs Wibbs!’

Everyone’s calling Sue Mrs Wibbs these days. It’s become her name. She reminds us all of my idea from last year – T shirts for all that read, ‘What Would Mrs Wibbsey do?’

Michael Jayston’s looking older than I expect, and like a long-term smoker. He’s craggy and charming. Preparing to record, he flexes his mouth, and his whole face in this amazing way – these very precise grimaces. His voice is immense and wonderfully deep. In scenes with the Doctor, even Tom’s voice sounds high and thin next to his.

‘I’ve realized it’s 41 years since we last worked together, Tom.’

‘And never again since!’

‘There’s a reason for that. I’ve just remembered.’

‘Yes! And that’s just like how no one ever invites me to their homes twice, too!’

‘RUBBISH, Tom,’ snaps Michael. ‘That’s NOT true!’

I’ve never seen Tom put right like this before. It’s done with such drollery, though. Drollery in all the hilarity.

‘Jesus Christ, Tom’s ACTING!’ gasps Kate at one point. He’s in a scene in a cell with the physician, Boolin. Simon Shepherd underplays Boolin – he’s mild and calming and better than we all expect, somehow. He’s a still point in all the raving and campery that goes on today. In a scene with him, Tom is starting to sound naturalistic. He’s underplaying himself and letting the Doctor think on his feet and not just show off. The scene finishes with him telling the robot that he’s wonderful – and just then I realise I’ve nicked this from Tom’s scene in State of Decay, when he says the same to Romana.

Then, as if he was straying too close to taking any of it seriously, he tells us about going to the hospice to see Nick Courtney on his death bed. ‘Well, I went in and I thought he was already dead. Then he let out this groan, and so I moved closer and I said: ‘Nick, Nick, after a long and eventful and wonderful life such as you’ve lived, and after everything you’ve seen and done, would you say, at the end, that you’re a tits or arse man?’ And there was a long, long pause. And then, with his dying breath, the Brigadier said: ‘Tits! No, arse! No, both, I think!’ And then he expired.’

I love these long, complicated days, and our sitting in the foyer with the wide windows over Soho – and there’s the Telecom tower to the north. Sue Jameson has become fond of me, I think, and I of her – she hugs me and ushers me to sit down with her, am I comfortable, can we move some of this stuff out the way? Perhaps she thinks I’m shy or seeming on the sidelines? I don’t feel on the sidelines, but my role is different to anyone’s. It’s hard to explain. But she looks after me and asks about Fester, who was ill last summer, and tells me she loves ‘Never the Bride’, and has a new grandchild on the way, and tells me about our mutual friend Jo Tope in her show in New York, and wants to hear about me going freelance.

Three years of these days and these adventures – this is our episode 11 – it feels like friendships are coming about. We’re definitely a team.

Sue introduces me to Simon Shepherd, also sitting on the settee. We’ve not had time to do that yet – everyone’s been diving into pastrami sandwiches and crawfish salads. I’m trying to squeeze a bit more juice out of Wibbs’ rather hard lime for her. Simon (whom Kate calls acting royalty in the making) is very pleased to be here – and in three episodes under different guises, no less. He and Sue both want to know why I’m not writing for the TV show. I tell them my sad little tale of Piers Wengers asking my agent for my storylines and pitches, and the reply that never came back…

‘I don’t watch it myself,’ Sue says. ‘It isn’t much fun. It’s much too complicated.’

But still, we’re enjoying this.

When he gets tired or restless Tom sighs, ‘Hey-ho!’ and you have to take it for a danger sign. Mostly he’s having fun and doubling up as Rasputin, who in this story has become an occasionally Chinese Nazi doctor, for some reason. Michael feeds the other lines in these doubler scenes, and it’s obviously made his year to do so.

There are boys – actors in their twenties – dashing about and being robots and gruff revolutionaries. All are excited and enthralled by the old folks acting up, acting their hearts out. They nip out for advert castings in theatres at lunchtime. A strawberry blonde who played our snaky villain announces with dismay that Macdonalds asked to see him topless.

It’s five before we finish. There’s a plan to spill next door into the Bricklayer’s Arms. I text my pal Nick to tell him of a change of venue for our 5pm drink – to watch his face when he walks in and sees this strange gang. But that’s maybe unfair – he’s shy, we were to have a quiet forty minutes’ chat together. But I can’t resist. I love turning round in that sunny, wooden, tiny bar and he’s walking in and seeing Mrs Wibbsey, and there’s the Valeyard at the bar, turning to welcome him, saying, ‘Nick! What will you have to drink?’

Michael Jayston was very nice to me – very complimentary about the script. I was dreading the worst over my cribbed Russian revolution stuff. But he’s keen to compliment me and to say what fun it’s all been. ‘He’s heaven, just heaven,’ Kate says, of working with him, and I can see why. He came in and was faultless. Then he was saying, ‘I’m the Doctor as well! People don’t always realise this, but I’m the Doctor, too! I’m the evil Doctor when he gets very old! I’m going to tell Tom!’

But Tom has slipped off. He put on his Eric Morecambe coat and picked up his paper bag. He stopped so I could have a picture taken with him and then he waved us goodbye again. ‘Yes, I know Michael Jayston wants me to come to the pub. But I can’t. Thirty years ago I’d go to the Bricklayers’ arms with him on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’d never get home until the following Tuesday. No – I’m off right now! Goodbye..! Goodbye…!’

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