`My life was a voyage with Dr Who. Then the Tardis turned to cardboard'
Tuesday 27 January 1998
The place: Haywards Heath, West Sussex
The man: Mark Ravenhill, playwright
I was obsessed with Dr Who as a young boy. I filled a whole shelf with about 150 novelisations of the programme and there were piles and piles of Dr Who magazines and Dr Who posters all over my bedroom walls. I was the proud owner of a Tom Baker-style scarf and even used to write my own Doctor stories. It was endless. I was a member of the Dr Who fan club and their convention was a very important part of my social calendar. I would lap up all the talks from people who had been in the programme and the screenings of early and rare episodes. Everybody took it terribly seriously, as did I.
There was not much going on elsewhere in my life, which is probably why Dr Who was special. The premise of the first show, back in 1963 - before I was born - was that someone who seems like an ordinary schoolgirl is really the granddaughter of a time lord who takes her away on his adventures. Being a very arrogant boy, who felt that he was much more interesting and talented than his class-mates and destined for unusual things, the idea really appealed.
I had a pleasant, untroubled childhood but I felt misplaced in bland Haywards Heath - a new town by accident rather than design. It does not even have the awesome regularity of Milton Keynes. It feels rather like a railway station with a not particularly beautiful town attached to it - the percentage of people of who work in London is very, very high. As a small child I remember the platforms being full of rows and rows of men in bowler hats and brolleys. It was weird. There is a link between sexuality and Dr Who fans. A lot of them discover that they are gay when they grow up.
The programme was a window for me on to a bigger world full of all sorts of strange and exotic people who did not lead their lives like everybody on Planet Haywards Heath did. In particular, I could project myself into the Dr Who companion figure. The one for the longest period with Tom Baker was called Sarah-Jane Smith who was a journalist. She was independent and wanted to go off on her own and not rely on the doctor, but when it came to the crunch he was always around to save her. So Dr Who himself was part father figure and part best friend, and it was quite a strange relationship between those two people stuck on board the Tardis.
I had a good relationship with my own father. He understood my obsession with Dr Who; his dream was similar but different. He's always been fascinated by flying. First World War aeroplanes, in particular, were his form of escape. He's wanted to be Biggles since he was a child and just this year he has taken flying lessons, passed his test and achieved his dream. I haven't yet found anywhere offering time and space travel.
When Saturday evening arrived, I was always excited. Dr Who would be broadcast from September to March so I associated it with the nights drawing in, the fire on and the family having tea in front of the television. My parents would watch, benignly amused by my obsession. From the age of six or seven I knew Dr Who wasn't real but I was prepared to suspend my disbelief to enter into its incredible fictional world.
However, in 1981, when I was 15, suddenly one Saturday everything looked like cardboard with a bad script and ropey acting. The previous week it had been the most important thing in my life. Now I realised how the programme had become stale and kept rehashing the same enemies. I could no longer ignore how easy it was to escape the Daleks - all you had to do was run up a flight of stairs and the danger disappears. Once it has gone you can't recapture it.
My disillusionment with Dr Who was an important marker of growing up. Peter Davison had become the new doctor. He was too young and he seemed less of a distant and strange figure. I did not fancy travelling the universe with someone who could easily have been a junior history teacher at Warden Park Comprehensive, where I went to school. Tom Baker's character had a dark side to him and you really did feel he was on the edge of lunacy. Dr Who had started to look tatty after the arrival of a whole new wave of science fiction movies.
Without Dr Who there was now a big gap in my life - the show had taken up a hell of a lot of time. I started reading more adult fiction. I took down my posters but did not junk them. So that when I arrived at university and needed money really badly I took them into a specialist shop. It marked the end of my Dr Who phase - or did it? My characters in Shopping and Fucking make up an alternative family - just like Dr Who. Rather than being lost in time, they are kids lost in the city. They share out responsibilities for looking after each other and try to find ways to survive. The Lulu character is thrown into quite a motherly role by shoplifting food for them all, but being junkies they are more likely to vomit it up. Mark tells stories to try to make sense of what is happening to them and Robbie is a naughty boy. Just like Dr Who there are monsters in the Shopping and Fucking world. When ever they leave their flat it is never very long before something awful happens: if you go down the road to get some chocolate you get stabbed in the Seven-Eleven and in a club you're beaten up for your ecstasy. To leave your little box is to face great danger and that was always the case with the Tardis. It would land on a planet, and the Doctor couldn't help but go outside and explore - of course as soon as the doors are open huge chases and dangers happen. The story is always about getting back safely to the Tardis. The world of Shopping and Fucking is very extreme. The characters are all trapped by obsessions - drug addiction is a form of being an obsessive. One of the themes running through the play is that I have the same potential - as my Dr Who mania shows. Fortunately I have focused my addictions into reasonably harmless or positive things. Mark in the play has an obsession with sex and I have to check myself there too - it would be easy to become obsessed with sex as well.
What would I write if the BBC invited me to resurrect Dr Who? When Dr Who first appeared William Hartnell looked not unlike Harold MacMillan. Are we an old imperial power, old Etonians and still inheritors of Queen Victoria? Or are we going to move into the white heat of technology? The controls in Dr Who's Tardis don't work properly - sometimes he is going to end up in the past and sometimes in the future or space. Later, Jon Pertwee was grounded on Earth for a few years and the threat was about alien invasion of England which tied in with Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech and the debate about joining the European Community. By the time of Harold Wilson's referendum on staying in the Common Market, the Doctor managed to get the Tardis started again so he wasn't stuck in England any more. What would the modern Dr Who be up to? We no longer feel the weight of history, so he would be a roamer trying to decide where he fitted in. One of his dilemmas would be: should he intervene at all? My Dr Who, like today's politicians, might end up taking the wrong side sometimes. He would have the same angularity and darkness as Tom Baker; there would be definitely be something internally alien about him. Selling my Dr Who memorabilia was quite painful and even today I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing. From time to time I look at a video of old episode to see if I could fall back in love with the show but I am always reminded that it really was dreadful.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
Shopping and Fucking is at the Queen's Theatre in the West End until 14 March. A touring version starts on 4 February in Cambridge and takes in Plymouth, Newcastle, Oxford, Bath, Swansea and Cardiff.
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