WHAT were you doing when John F Kennedy was shot? Lots of people like to say they were watching the very first episode of Doctor Who, many more than actually did, but I’m pretty sure I saw it, and from the classic vantage point of behind the sofa.
An Adventure In Space And Time
BBC2, Thursday, 9pm
Him & Her
BBC3, Thursday, 10pm
Last Tango In Halifax
BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm
Now, you’re probably thinking what a cliché, everyone says that; but it’s true. I was six and had been invited to a school chum’s birthday party in his house, where a girl – the never-to-be-forgotten Caroline Flockhart – thought it would be an excellent idea to creep up behind me and yank down my shorts. Everyone laughed, I burst into tears, and behind the sofa was where I hid. After that trauma, the Daleks held no fear.
Actually, that’s a lie. They were bloody terrifying. Incredibly, given it was a modestly constructed drama about a brave but balsa-wood-basic era in telly history, An Adventure In Space And Time managed to convey this. Not so much because it got the prototype Daleks right but because it got 1963 sitting rooms right. Furniture in unprepossessing browns, two-bar electric fires, tasselled lamps, doilies on every flat surface, a walnut-veneered goggle-box. This was how we received the nightmarish vision of a robot-ruled future. And we thought the BBC was paternalist – more than that, auntie-ist. Whatever was the state broadcaster thinking of?
The Daleks emerged from a period in the development of sci-fi stagecraft which you might call everything-under-the-kitchen-sink: plughole plungers, whisks, silver foil. But An Adventure… wasn’t really about them. This was the story of the three outsider/visionaries who created Doctor Who and the actor who played him first, William Hartnell.
The drama began with a Cyberman on a fag break, a contender for the best opening scene ever. Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert were sufficiently outsiderish to struggle to get served at the bar at the Beeb’s Broadcasting House – a gay Indian director and a woman producer. Sacha Dhawan was fine as Hussein but Jessica Raine seemed to bring too much of the sweetness of Call The Midwife to her role, especially since Lambert was required to have “piss and vinegar” in her veins.
This was the stipulation of head of drama Sydney Newman, the third outsider on account of being Canadian and from ITV. Newman wanted a show to keep the Grandstand audience hooked until Juke Box Jury. Sci-fi, but with “proper history so the kids would learn something”. He wanted the Time Lord to be “CS Lewis meets HG Wells meets Father Christmas”. He wanted what he always wanted from TV: “pop-pop-pop”. He sported a painted moustache like Groucho Marx’s and a cigarette holder, and Brian Cox so obviously had an absolute ball playing him.
Looking very like Hartnell, David Bradley seemed to misread the Santa element for Scrooge, on and off set, and was especially grumpy towards his own granddaughter. Although he’d had his fill of playing “crooks and perishing sergeant-majors” – great word, perishing, I’m going to start using it a whole lot more – Hartnell was none too sure about Doctor Who. But soon the old pro was treating the Tardis as if it was real, refusing to turn its dials randomly because continuity was important, and through the show and doubtless the fame that came with it, he softened. A touching performance in a drama which did telly’s heritage proud. And Caroline Flockhart? Ex-ter-min-ate!
Elsewhere, wedding planning dominated. Him & Her returned with Steve and Becky getting ready for the latter’s brilliantly ghastly sister Laura tying the knot with her doomed halfwit fiancé Paul. This is the final series, and in the clever, quiet, wonderfully slow way of this comedy maybe all of it will be about the wedding. Certainly Laura is going to be relentless in her pursuit of the perfect day, reprimanding one of her bridesmaids: “Try not to laugh so ugly.” But the most remarkable thing about this run is that finally, at long last, the FA Cup-lugged Steve and his slovenly sexpot Becks are being glimpsed outside their midden of a flat. Admittedly they’re spending a lot of time in their hotel bedroom, in the bed, only straying into the corridors or the lift for an awkward encounter with other guests. This is like the film version of one of those 1970s sitcoms. Remember when On The Buses went to a safari park for the big-screen Mutiny On The Buses? I think there was a wedding in that as well.
“Bugger practicalities, bugger the registrar – let’s just do it.” In the returning Last Tango In Halifax, death-cheating pensioner Alan was intent on getting it right and finally marrying first love Celia, but the best bits of the opener involved Tony Gardner as the vain, self-important, idiotic, squawking John.
Truly, he’s a perisher.
WHAT TO WATCH
Legacy BBC2, Thursday, 9pm
It’s 1974, a time of strikes, blackouts and suspicion within MI5 that trade union dissent is being orchestrated by the Soviets, so a rookie spy (Charlie Cox) is given the job of “turning” a Russian (Andrew Scott). He’s an old friend from uni and, as the boss admits: “Exploiting personal relationships is never easy.”
BBC2, Friday 8.30pm
Some of his countrymen question why 6ft 7in Australian Chris Barns plays mum to orphan kangaroos in a tin shack in the Outback. “I do it because I see what other people don’t,” he says. “I see these little joeys calling out for help.”
BBC1, Tuesday, 10.35pm
Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote The Tiger Who Came To Tea and who, at 90, climbs three flights of stairs to her studio and still works full days invigorated by a sip of martini, tells how she fled from the Nazis, aged nine.