Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun and Doctor Who

Dominic Sandbrook’s new book Seasons In The Sun has just been published, and concludes his monumental quartet of social and political histories of a period of time in Britain which can be seen as a discrete era unto itself: 1965-1979. The previous three volumes have each borne a title associated with the utterances of the Prime Ministers who dominated the period in question: Never Had It So Good for the Harold Macmillan years (1956-63); White Heat for the Harold Wilson 60s; and State of Emergency, that announcement which the hapless Edward Heath was forced to make on so many occasions between 1970-74. Perhaps significantly, the fourth volume, Seasons in the Sun, takes its title from a song which was a huge hit for Terry Jacks in 1974, and whose lyrics are a valedictory farewell from a dying man. It was also a considerably defanged and sentimentalised translation of a song written by the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel, a legendary figure in France (and a source of inspiration for David Bowie, Scott Walker and Marc Almond), which gives the title an extra layer of irony. The lack of a defining phrase from the Prime Minister of the era under scrutiny reflects the collapse of traditional power and strong leadership, with the book covering the fag end of Wilson’s political career and the desperate attempts of Jim Callaghan to reign in social chaos and stave off the worst effects of industrial and economic decline. This latest volume continues the pattern of the previous books in regarding politics as a drama in which the personalities of the performers are of key importance, and of reflecting on the reality of life as experienced by the majority of people in the country (and of examining how the latter was affected by the outcomes of the former).

The unpatronising inclusion of examples taken from popular culture which are used to reflect upon the issues and trends of the time is also continued, and you get the impression that many of these are things for which Sandbrook has a genuine fondness. As with the previous volume, State of Emergency, the focus is very much on TV, as this was something of a golden era for the medium. Doctor Who is referred to on several occasions, although not with the same emphasis as it was in State of Emergency, in which one chapter, The Green Death, was even named after a Who story. This is partly due to the fact that the Pertwee era was a particularly politicised one, with both the producer (and occasional writer) Barry Letts and the script editor Terrance Dicks having strongly held political convictions. Letts, in particular, was very much in tune with the ideals of the nascent green movement, and had spiritual leanings towards Zen Buddhism, both of which meant that Pertwee’s Doctor was at times quite explicitly anti-capitalist and critical of blind materialism. In State of Emergency, Sandbrook drew a direct parallel between stories from the Letts and Dicks era and contemporary events or movements. In The Curse of Peladon, for example, Pertwee acts as a negotiator trying to reason with representatives of various squabbling alien races and encouraging the king of the planet of Peladon to join the Galactic Federation, which he believes will lead to a mutually beneficial relationship of peaceful co-existence. As Sandbrook amusingly puts it, he is ‘like some infinitely more dashing Edward Heath’, pushing the SF equivalent of a pro EEC/Common Market policy. The Martian Ice Warriors, who had proved such intractable enemies in the Patrick Troughton era, are here re-invented as unlikely allies, desirous of peace despite their hulking, surly demeanour and the kind of stertorous, perfectly enunciated delivery usually reserved for the villainous alien. Indeed, it’s characteristic of the quietly radical nature of the Letts era that he should encourage the creation of aliens which are not automatically monsters bent on evil deeds or ruthless mastery. The Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon are, as Sandbrook puts it, ‘Dr Who’s answer to Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt’, the German Chancellor and his finance minister (and future successor). The Doctor returned to Peladon in 1974, in The Monster of Peladon, during the second miner’s strike of the Heath prime-ministership, and its resultant three day week. The plot here revolves around unrest amongst the miners of Peladon. They have a moderate leader, Gebek, and a more excitable firebrand, Ettis, who is aggressively opposed to any hint of negotiation and more inclined towards violent confrontation with the powers of the royal court – class warfare, essentially. Sandbrook likens Ettis to ‘an intergalactic Mick McGahy to Gebek’s Joe Gormley’. Mcgahy was a Communist of Stalinist persuasion and fearsome manner, a militant pretender to the position of NUM leader held by the more old school Labour figure of Gormley, who enjoyed a more cordial relationship with Heath and his government, and was always prepared to negotiate with them if possible. Further Pertwee Who adventures The Green Death and The Invasion of the Dinosaurs were highlighted by Sandbrook in State of Emergency, in both cases as a reflection on the growth of environmental concerns and the birth of Green politics. Invasion of the Dinosaurs has recently been released on dvd, with more heavyweight critical attention attached in the form of a documentary written and presented by Matthew Sweet, who can sometimes be heard chairing the Radio 3 arts programme Night Waves.

With the changing of the guard heralding the start of the Tom Baker era in 1975, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes ushered in a new, stylised Gothicism, which tended to steer clear of political comment and revive old, pre-war (be that Second, First or Boer) literary forms and stories, which were given clever science fiction twists. Amongst those dusted off and wittily revivified were the hoary likes of the Frankenstein story (The Brain of Morbius), the mummy’s curse (The Pyramids of Mars), the yellow peril (The Talons of Weng-Chiang), the Ten Little Indians murder mystery (Robots of Death), the historical tale of Machiavellian courtly intrigue (The Masque of Mandragora), and the paranoid Manchurian Candidate-style assassination plot (The Deadly Assassin). On several occasions, these involved travelling back into a past which allowed for such pastiche to find its appropriate backdrop, but which also tended to remove it from contemporary concerns. The example which Sandbrook draws on for Seasons in the Sun comes from the period after Hinchcliffe had stepped down as producer, to be replaced by Graham Williams. The old-fashioned horror content which was a characteristic of his stewardship was toned down, partly in weary response to the protracted campaign of moral disapproval aimed at the programme by Mary Whitehouse and her acolytes. The story The Sun Makers, shown towards the end of 1977, was written by Robert Holmes, and, as Sandbrook points out, was a response to what he considered to be his hounding at the hands of the Inland Revenue over taxes for his work as a freelance writer. The Company which rules the heavily industrialised planet of Pluto ruthlessly taxes its workers and pacifies them with a narcotising gas released through the air conditioning system. The corridors of the towers (or Magropolises) in which the citizens are housed are all named after particular tax forms (there’s one known as the P45, for example). The head of the Company, called the Collector, turns out the be an alien known as an Usurian, a race who specialise in controlling the societies of other planets through rigidly applied bureaucracy and bleeding them dry through exorbitant taxation of every aspect of life. He is a small, leech-like creature who eventually reverts to his natural form of a noxious fungus after witnessing the collapse of his profits (sent into downward spiral by the Doctor’s introduction of an destabilising index linked inflationary figure) and the insurrection of his subjects. Sandbrook notes that he has prominent bushy eyebrows, not unlike those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey, who had imposed stringent tax increases upon the people of Britain in the wake of the 1976 IMF loan. The Collector’s eloquently servile representative, the Gatherer Hade (played by the actor Richard Leech, also blessed with prominent eyebrows, and speaking with roundly chummy, Healeyish tones), expert as he is in the evasive, circumlocutory language of bureaucracy, is eventually thrown off the top of one of the high-rise Plutonian towers after the citizens rise up and take over. Sandbrook wryly comments that many British citizens affected by Healey’s tax policies no doubt wished they could solve their problems so easily. Sandbrook can also be found talking about the Sun Makers in the documentary included in the extras on the dvd release. He makes the fair point that the Doctor assists a group of people who are essentially murderous psychopaths instigate a violent insurrection, taking over one of the Magropolis towers (a definite nod to Metropolis here) and throwing the Gatherer to his death. At the end, he leaves the society, and the potential future of the Earth (which he encourages them to reconlonise) in their bloodstained hands. Nevertheless, he concedes, the story works in spite of its rather graphic implications of violence because of its humour and lightness of touch, which work to defuse any unpleasantness. The Collector in particular is a wonderful creation, a hunched, pin-striped worm with green lips, a pinched, mean voice and a permanent squint caused by ceaseless study of his profit margins. He is a distillation of resentment and bitterness at both taxation and corporate exploitation. Elsewhere in Seasons in The Sun, Sandbrook notes, in relation to the perceived threat of the militant tendency within Labour, that the Doctor Who Appreciation Society actually had more members at the time. I feel certain that he has a whole book on Doctor Who and Contemporary Politics and Society in him.

Other literary and filmic references strike an immediate chord with me. Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital, the final part of the ‘Travis trilogy’, is described as a ‘blistering satire’, which suggests a level of appreciation absent at the time of its release, when most critics, some perhaps with partisan views of their own, found its broad range of targets too merciless. Anderson doesn’t let anyone off the hook in his extremely bleak state of the nation allegory. Blake’s 7, Survivors and the 2000AD comic strip Judge Dredd are all cited as reflecting a breakdown in social order, and the fears of possible totalitarian systems of control arising as a result. Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor is also mentioned as a more gentile science fictional reflection upon the collapse of social order. Here, a middle class woman watches the chaos in the streets outside her room, which she never leaves, retreating further into a calmer, more peaceful inner world. More savage visions are found in Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve and JG Ballard’s High-Rise, both of which were also cited in the previous volume. Sandbrook is also good at challenging versions of history which have become accepted through constant repetition and reinforcement. Here, he attempts to undermine the given mythology of punk as both and instantly revolutionary movement, and one which was an expression of working class discontent. He quotes Angela Carter and Derek Jarman, neither of them unsympathetic, but both pointing to its origins in art schools, and as merely the latest of the periodic revolts into style which came out of their corridors. Jarman wrote in his book Dancing Ledge (and Sandbrook cites this passage) ‘in reality the instigators of punk are the same petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted Dadaist typography and bad manners, and are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility’. Sandbrook, like Jarman, is not one to take the commonly accepted, self-celebrating view of cultural history at face value. He took a similarly sceptical view of the swinging sixties pop scene in White Heat. Such a view, inquisitive and scrupulously balanced, brings the true nature of an era and its political and cultural movements, into much clearer focus, and ultimately makes it easier to appreciate the artistic products of the time for what they are. I look forward to reading the book more thoroughly and completely in the near future. Meanwhile, you can still catch Sandbrook’s entertaining TV series The Seventies, of necessity a considerably condensed version of his last two books in the now complete quartet – a major work of cultural history.

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