SHE won the hearts of literature fans years ago, but what AL Kennedy still yearns for is to write for Doctor Who. The author tells Lee Randall about her love affair with the doctor and which classic enemies remind her of ‘an embarrassing gay boy band’
Literary scholars writing degree-clinching dissertations about Scottish author AL Kennedy ought to brush up on a certain Time Lord from Gallifrey. Kennedy is a lifelong fan, and has incorporated some of the lessons learned from Doctor Who into her personal philosophy. Naturally, this finds an outlet in her acclaimed works of fiction – a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice of critics, one of whom, reviewing her most recent novel, The Blue Book, writes: “Arthur . . . who, with his good clothes and his fear of daylight, is fascinating in a deeply adolescent way, like a Goth popster, or television’s Doctor Who.”
Next weekend, Kennedy pays a visit to the Wigtown Book Festival to talk about her passion for the Doctor, but I manage to pluck her from the author’s yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, for a little preview over cups of tea at the Roxburgh Hotel. I say “pays a visit” because Kennedy has recently moved south – not, she assures me, for political reasons concerning independence, but because she’s done with spending the bulk of her time on trains.
“I’m very happy with Scotland and if I could live there and live close to my mother and the city I have to visit most for work, and be close to the people that I care about, and not have a heart attack before I’m 50 from all the commuting, then I’d still live in Glasgow. I think it’s the best city on earth that I know, and London really isn’t. But I can’t spend my life on trains, can’t never see the people I care about, can’t endlessly be this commuter. It will give me more time to write, but also to rest.”
With that out of the way, we turn immediately to Doctor Who – which earns me a big grin, and the sight of Kennedy’s eyes twinkling with happiness. Kennedy’s Doctor is – in common with many fortysomethings’ – Tom Baker. “When he turned up, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s okay now.’ He arrived when you were at an age when you believed in it, but you were old enough to appreciate it and you weren’t scared. Also, he was hugely charismatic, clearly, genuinely from another planet. He didn’t play at it, he was passionate in it.”
He wasn’t her first, though. That was Patrick Troughton. “I remember him running on the spot, and it very clearly, even at that age, was obviously someone running on the spot. You didn’t think, ‘That’s really shit,’ you thought, ‘Oh poor Doctor, he’s got to pretend that he’s running.’ It didn’t undermine your belief in the Doctor, it just made you think that they weren’t quite up to portraying him yet.
“I also remember that eternal thing you have as a kid, which is your parents saying, ‘But it scares you,’ and you saying ‘Yes it does, but that’s OK.’ You insist that you have to watch it and because it was always a fight, you loved it very, very, very much. And you hid behind the sofa!”
Kennedy was precocious. She was just a toddler when she saw that first episode. “I remember one with a werewolf type thing. It was one of the one of the first times where you saw a human being recognisably a human being, but also a monster. And it was very disturbing.” Surely she’d seen similar stuff before then, in films? “No, I was too young. The house that I remember seeing it in, we left when I was four. My parents were absolutely right, it was far too scary. But hey.
“I remember the joy in the Doctor, and the exploration – which I think is a good thing for kids – of the monstrousness of human beings, and the fact that he’s always the champion of, ‘You can be better than that.’ Yes, we absolutely have to bear in mind that we are monstrous, but we can overcome it. I think it’s a great principle for life.
“All the time you’re looking at: what’s human nature? The bad guys are essentially saying you are monstrous. The other humans would always not get it. The army would always turn up and say, ‘We’ll blow it up.’ No, don’t do that, it’ll make it much worse. So if you’re smart enough and clever enough, you will think of something that’s a better solution to this problem than killing it. There is always a better way. I remember being very yahoo and gung-ho about the discovery of oil in the North Sea, and then there’s an episode of Doctor Who where Tom Baker says, ‘It’s gonna run out, what are you talking about, you idiot? You’ve gotta think of something better than this because it’s terribly polluting and it’ll run out.’ You’re suddenly thinking, oh, if the Doctor thinks that, maybe that’s sensible. And questions like, do you kill the Daleks absolutely, because they’re horrendous, but if you do you commit genocide – and you can’t do that because you’re the Doctor, and also it’s not right. I remember suddenly knowing what that word meant. If you could go back in time and destroy the greatest evil in the universe, but do it by committing genocide, would you do it? And no, he can’t do it.”
We agree that the Daleks weren’t very scary. “The classic stand-up joke was, how do you get away from a Dalek? Run upstairs! They couldn’t even move on uneven ground, they were so poorly constructed. And their weapons – an egg whisk, a sort of grabby thing, and a really bad ray. Oh stop it! And Blue Peter told you how to make one, so they were quite cuddly.
“The Cybermen sometimes were like members of an embarrassing gay boy band. They’ve had lots of different makeovers. The original very cheap Cybermen were shit scary because they looked freaky, like bandaged living dead people. Davros was scary. And one I loved and never forgot was the giant invisible spider that lives on your back and controls your brain. Where did you get that from and how dare you put that in the head of a child?!]”
That was, she recalls, in an episode featuring Sarah Jane Smith as the Doctor’s companion – one of the all-time greats, in Kennedy’s estimation. Does she hold with the view that the assistants are there for viewers to identify with? “No. You identify with the Doctor. The assistants exist to be in the way and to get into trouble that slows the Doctor down. And it’s a Dr Watson – you’ve got to talk to somebody. The best assistants have all been female. There was Jo, who was wonderful. Sarah Jane Smith was wonderful, and Rose was wonderful. I think she got into it with the second series, opposite David Tennant, and kind of found her feet with the acting, which is always handy.”
Kennedy’s enthusiastic now, but in 2005, when Doctor Who returned after many years, she wrote that the prospect made her feel suicidal, and wouldn’t watch. Obviously something changed, but what?
“I was having a very, very shit period of time. I almost didn’t watch because I thought, this is what sustained me through a not always calm childhood. Nothing major league, but I was kind of a nervy kid anyway, and I had parents that didn’t like each other, so it was quite difficult. Which is why it’s so important that the doctor is there and is good. Because he’s your pal, that’s what his job is. He’s not a parental figure, you don’t need that, you need a friend. I’ve spoken to other people who had slightly dodgy childhoods, and you don’t take it personally that he isn’t going to come and save you. You like that he’s out there standing for the principle that the person who gets saved first is the kid. He understands how scared you are. If the assistant is in any way what you identify with, it’s because the assistant is scared, and the Doctor isn’t. He’s always thought it’s fantastic when everything goes wrong!”
She makes no bones about her desire to write for Doctor Who – she’s announced it with such regularity that when she ran into actor and Who writer Mark Gatiss at a party, he knew all about it.
“To go back to things that you are completely open to as a child, and which you allow to be very deeply part of who you are, as an artist, is to get back to that bit of yourself. And Doctor Who is very deeply there in my own work. Every crazy person, lots of the sense of humour, my viewpoint on what human beings are, absolutely. If I wasn’t going to be a writer I was going to be an anthropologist, because that was my thing: what are human beings?”
Surely that’s the writer’s question, as well? Nodding, she continues, “How can we explain how we go wrong, why we go wrong? How can we explain why we get better, or if we get better? How do we step outside the things that scare us and our prejudices and be above that? The Doctor is great for that because he’s so rude, but he keeps coming back.”
And he clearly loves the human race. “He’s very good at saying, ‘You’re not the best thing around,’ but unless you’re inexcusably horrible, he’ll give you a fair shake, which I think is a good way to be. The Doctor’s good company.”
• AL Kennedy’s new novel, The Blue Book, is out in paperback. An anthology of her journalism, essays and lectures, entitled On Writing, is due out next year. Kennedy will talk about Doctor Who at the Wigtown Book Festival on 7 October. For information and tickets, visit www.wigtownbookfestival.com