Ray Cusick: The man who left a generation of children cowering behind the sofa from the Daleks

Michael Bywater pays tribute to Ray Cusick, who died last week, and his invention of a quintessentially British baddie

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The Independent Culture

If the government wants a citizenship test less silly than the current proposals, one word should do the trick: “exterminate”.

Give it a go. Say it. Say: “exterminate”.

And if what you say is EX-TER-MI-NATE, on a hoarse monotone, you’re British. Simple. And a suitable memorial for one of the unsung heroes of our national identity, Ray Cusick, who died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday, aged 84.

Because it was Mr Cusick who, in 1963, invented the Daleks. And what could be more British than that?

I don’t just mean the generations of schoolboys, tens of thousands, in thousands of playgrounds,  being Daleks. The swivelling-on-the-heels walk. The short arm at forehead-height for the Eye Stalk. The other arm extended breast-high, alternating between the Plunger and the Death Ray. The special Dalek voice.

Ray Cusick’s invention was more than that. When, 30 years later, Dennis Potter called the BBC Director-General John Birt “a croak-voiced Dalek” it was a perfect and precise insult because we all knew what he meant. The Dalek rapidly became, and has remained, the personification for robotic, procedure-obsessed, indefectible managerial monomania.

The things themselves were magnificently, uniquely British. Nobody else could have done them. They were innovative, singular, memorable and actually pretty crap.

Can you imagine if the Americans had thought them up? Can you imagine CGI Daleks? They could never have achieved the cheese-paring splendour of hardboard and ball-cock floats cut in half and glued on, of the Evil Manipulator Sucker looking exactly like a plumber’s plunger on a stick. In reality, it was a plumber’s plunger on a stick, though as the Make Your Own Dalek site (www.projectdalek.co.uk) notes, “The actual plunger style used during the 1960s is obsolete today and finding a good, black, hemispherical plunger can be difficult”

Any other nation would be slightly ashamed to have an iconic villain made from a lavatory. Not us. It’s magnificently British.

The Daleks articulated the prevailing fears of 1963. Fears of change and disorder, of cultural appropriation. The Beatles’s first LP, the Aldermaston marchers, the first geostationary satellite, nuclear test ban negotiations, the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, eight years old with another 12 to run.

Harvey Ball’s invention of the smiley.

We’re all in it together, behind the sofa. Scared of Russkies. Scared of garlic and curry and coloured shirts and atom bombs. We, like the Daleks, were pretty much rubbish. But, then as now, our great skill was suspension of disbelief: the skill which allowed us to continue with the Monarchy and the Establishment, to believe we still had an Empire, that we were still a world power.

Much has changed. Ray Cusick has gone. But his creation survives, and will survive as long as there are still Etonians in the Cabinet.