Matthew Norman: Dr Who and the flatulence of Dr Reid

We are not living in 1963, or even in 1973, when public school twits may have looked down on provincial timbres
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The Independent Online

For one fabled for his ability to travel between the ages in the flash of a police box's blue light, the new Dr Who seems very much a creature of his time. In an episode of the forthcoming revival, I read, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor "is confronted by the entire British cabinet breaking wind uncontrollably." His response hardly puts you in mind of John Pertwee. "Would you mind not farting," the ninth Doctor asks Her Majesty's most senior ministers, "while I'm trying to save the world".

For one fabled for his ability to travel between the ages in the flash of a police box's blue light, the new Dr Who seems very much a creature of his time. In an episode of the forthcoming revival, I read, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor "is confronted by the entire British cabinet breaking wind uncontrollably." His response hardly puts you in mind of John Pertwee. "Would you mind not farting," the ninth Doctor asks Her Majesty's most senior ministers, "while I'm trying to save the world".

Until now, no BBC employee but Jeremy Paxman has dared treat leading politicians with such imperious disdain, although whether this fictional cabinet accepts the rebuke with better grace than a member of the real one reacted to Paxo this week, we will have to wait a few weeks to find out.

Like the Time Lord, the PhD-wielding John Reid has long enjoyed the title of doctor despite an absolute dearth of medical training. And like the actor, he does seem the most crashing inverted snob. A Mancunian self-styled working class hero to his fingertips, Mr Eccleston this week told a preview audience in Cardiff that he never liked the show himself as a boy.

"I'm different from the other Doctors. All the others spoke with this RP (received pronunciation) accent - maybe it was that that put me off."

The same night, meanwhile, the Health Secretary had his dust-up with Paxo on precisely the very same issue. Taking the gravest exception to being described as Tony Blair's "attack dog", Mr/Dr Reid bared his fangs. "I've said to you before that if you have a Phd and a posh accent from a school like yours," he snarled, "you are regarded as a sophisticate ... You called me an 'attack dog' because I have a Glasgow accent."

So striking was the synchronicity of these two statements that I can't help wondering whether Mr Eccleston regenerated into Mr/Dr Reid the second he'd made his RP remark, and - stopping briefly at Alpha Centauri for a rousing rendition of "My Heart Belongs To Glasgie" - took the Tardis to TV Centre at White City, where Dr Who was born a little over 41 years ago.

Clearly, as John Reid's amusing overreaction implies, the notion of deference has sustained some damage since November 23, 1963, when the first episode was transmitted late, the BBC1 news bulletin overrunning by seven minutes due to the death the previous day of John F Kennedy. I missed it myself due to an unavoidable engagement (I was immovably wedged, for the record, in my mother's birth canal). However, I did see that debut show recently with my own son, a Dr Who obsessive who shares his bedroom with a Dalek slightly taller than himself; and even though Mr Hartnell's Doctor was a grumpy old sod, you can't really imagine him ordering the cabinet to supress their flatulence.

Then, as now, Dr Who was a useful reflection of the political age. Far from being a chippy class warrior, the first Doctor spoke with the patrician certainties of a time-travelling Harold Macmillan, who himself had done much to save the world the previous year (if you choose to believe the spin) by nursemaiding Jack Kennedy through the Cuban missile crisis. The pill, although invented, had yet to catch on, Carnaby Street was still a dowdy shopping thoroughfare, and both the Beatles and Harold Wilson were still a few months away from bringing their own regional accents to Numbers One and Ten respectively. At that point in the space-time continuum, one could view Britain as being trapped in the kind of temporal stasis that sometimes afflicted the Tardis. In a country stuck between the lingering puritan spirit of the austerity years gone by and the thrilling explosion of social and sexual liberalism soon to come, courtesy and its kissing cousin deference still ruled.

In those days, and for many more to come, pregnant women needed no Baby On Board badges to be offered seats on the Underground, and a legendary stock question to John Reid's predecessors was: "Minister, do you have anything further you wish to say to a grateful nation?"

As for Mr/Dr Reid, he was plain Mister then, or even Master, being a 16- year-old schoolboy. But once Patrick Troughton had regenerated into John Pertwee, he did a doctorate in economic history, and in 1973 - long after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, and the details of Stalin's death camps became common knowledge - he joined the Communist Party, cleaving to that creed well into his thirties.

What precisely later led him to reverse all his most treasured political convictions and mutate into an arch Blairite moderniser, we may never know. With access to the Tardis, we could travel back in search of the Eureka! moment when he sat bolt upright in his bath, realising that every single thing he believed was arrant cobblers, and that he now believed the diametric opposite ... in partly privatised health care, for example, and a vibrant free market economy.

Much as I'd love to believe in this epiphany, it is slightly more credible that he was lured gradually into this metamorphosis by the beguiling scent of power. In this respect, at least, he is quite unlike Dr Who. In his Tom Baker manifestation - and I'm sorry about this, but, until you've taken your child to the Dr Who Museum in Llangollen, who are you to judge me? - the Doctor was offered the Presidency of the Council of Time Lords back on Gallifrey. Not for a nanosecond did he contemplate it. He simply stuck a sardonic Jelly Baby in his mouth, and headed off to re-engage the Cybermen.

On the form book, I suspect Mr/Dr Reid would act differently.

Whether he desires to replace Mr Blair we can only guess, but given the professional politician's genius for self-delusion, it's safest to assume that he, along with Messrs Milburn and Clarke, is quietly manoeuvring to run under the Anyone But Gordon banner when the moment arrives.

If so, I hope he toughens himself up. Being hypersensitive to the phrase "attack dog" cannot bode well for a wannabe PM, given the remorseless personal attacks that office tends to attract. And however engaging all this class warrior stuff might be from a very rich man with a very swanky house in SW1, I hope he manages to jettison it and join the rest of us in the present.

We are not living in 1963, or even in 1973, when public school twits may have looked down on provincial timbres. These days, the only people who notice regional accents are the Radio 4 ultras who threaten to blow up Parliament if The Archers is moved to a new slot, and write "Dear BBC, Why oh why oh why" letters to Feedback if they hear a Geordie voice reading the weather.

I'd never be so cynical as to wonder whether the assault on Paxo was really a synthesised expression of outrage designed to divert attention from Tory attacks on the NHS, and/or to ingratiate himself with the Alastair Campbell provisional wing of New Labour, which reserves its highest level of anti-BBC paranoia for Newsnight. Even so, what he said to Paxo the other night was nothing but wind, and pretty noxious wind at that. It is high time, to adapt his fellow doctor, for the farting to cease.

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