Sunday, 24 June 2012

Caroline John

Dr Elizabeth Shaw - the scientist at work

Caroline John, who died last Thursday, was always something of a Doctor Who companion that time forgot, present only for the transitional first series of Jon Pertwee’s tenure in 1970. She played Dr Liz Shaw, and she always emphasised the Doctor when she introduced herself and her character on dvd commentaries, as if she wanted to underline the intellectual substance of her companion. That ‘doctor’ earned her a sort of equality with the Doctor, her qualifications and readily apparent knowledge immediately gaining his respect and the right to share in his empirical attempts to provide a scientific solution to whatever crisis they were confronted with. We meet Liz in the first Pertwee story Spearhead From Space (which also introduces the Autons, animated plastic dummies controlled by an alien intelligence), when she is recruited by UNIT, driven into a shadowy underground complex beneath Kings Cross station and ushered into an interview with the Brigadier. She is clearly unimpressed, making it evident that she is not there through any choice of her own, and that she has ‘an important research project at Cambridge’ in which she is engaged. The Brig tells her that he is well aware of this, and of the fact that she is ‘an expert in meteorites’ with ‘degrees in medicine, physics and a dozen other subjects’, thus informing us of her intellectual qualities. Her scepticism and indeed ridicule of the Brigadier’s claims that the Earth has been subject to alien visitation and attack sets up the new series’ Earth-based format. It also positions her as an audience identification figure for the revamped show, introducing viewers to the UNIT ‘family’ into which she is being invited, and of course to Jon Pertwee’s new Doctor. Liz is in fact being established as the ideal female counterpart of the Doctor’s intellectual probity, defiant individualism and staunch advocacy of reason over force. She even adopts, right from the start, something of the fractious relationship with the brigadier and the military establishment which in general which will become characteristic of Pertwee’s Doctor. During their initial meetings, she is extremely short with the Brig, treating him as if her were a fool, and even laughs in his face. ‘No need to get tetchy’, he remarks at one point. When the Brig announces the arrival of General Scobie, UNIT’s army liaison chief, she tartly retorts ‘you don’t expect me to salute him, I hope’. When she finally does get to meet The Doctor, having been introduced by the Brigadier with a dismissively offhand ‘by the way, this is Miss Shaw’, they immediately set to examining the unearthly plastic fragment of an Auton ‘shell’. Framed by a skeletal sculpture of retorts, test tubes and vials, they discover a common language of thermo plastics and polymer chains, falling into an animated discussion which leaves the Brig looking baffled and a bit miffed in the background.

The excitement of science - Spearhead From Space
Liz is later a bit put out when the Doctor declares the ‘lasers, spectrographs and micron probes’ at their disposal to be too primitive for his purposes. She is a creature of the white heat, technocratic sixties, excited by the possibilities of science and its potential for creating a brighter, more rationalised future. When we first see her, she wears a coat with plastic panels of geometric relief pattern, a sixties fashion statement of belief in such a science-driven, space-age future. A belief in which the Doctor Who series itself partook, of course. The new, all-colour Pertwee era ushered Who into the 70s (the first episode of Spearhead from Space was broadcast on the 3rd January 1970). But Liz remained a 60s figure. She was in fact the creation of producers Derrick Sherwin and Paul Bryant, both of whom had been centrally involved with the production of Who in the preceding Patrick Troughton era. They had already shown their interest in having female characters partaking in the scientific excitement of the period by making Wendy Padbury’s Zoe a mathematical genius. Having established this trait, however, not a great deal was done with it, and her character did tend to fall into the more traditional role requirements of the female companion: screaming and finding themselves in positions of peril from which they had to be rescued. Liz was a more grown-up version of Wendy, and her scientific knowledge and curiosity was central to her character. But Sherwin and Brady were diverted to other projects at the start of the production of the series, and only got to supervise the making of Spearhead from Space. Their place was taken by Barry Letts (who took over as producer) and script editor Terrance Dicks. This duo was to become absolutely central to the creation of the character and feel of the Pertwee era, and they would bring a great deal of their own progressive social and political ideals to various stories. These did not extend to a belief in female equality and the greater participation of women in roles previously closed off to them, however. On dvd commentaries and extras, Dicks always talks about feminism as if it’s a dirty word, and is quite plain about his adherence to old adventure and thriller conventions of the woman as passive victim awaiting rescue by the hero. On the commentary track of The Silurians, Caroline John’s second Doctor Who story, Dicks talks of being ‘stuck with several decisions left to us’. He cites the seven-part story structure and the Earthbound nature of the series, but given the presence of Caroline John beside him in the studio, tactfully omits adding that this list included the character of Liz Shaw. Neither he nor Letts was comfortable with having a female character who was the equal of the Doctor, and Letts immediately set about ‘softening’ her initial appearance and manner. Her practical and businesslike bun, serving to keep her hair out of the potassium nitrate solution and away from the Bunsen flame, was gradually loosened, reaching full-flowing length in The Ambassadors of Death (John’s third story), and achieving salon-styled shape and colour in Inferno. In the opening scenes of The Silurians (the first story on which Letts was producer) we see her in red mini-dress and boots, looking down as the Doctor tinkers beneath Bessie. Her collaboration here is clearly not required, and neither is she dressed for it if it were. John talks in the extras of Inferno about Letts’ requirement that when Liz insisted on going down into the caves with the Doctor to communicate with the Silurians, she should do so in her miniskirt. She argued with him that this was simply absurd, and that practicality dictated that if she were going potholing, Liz would at least wear a pair of trousers. Jon Pertwee lent his support to her point of view, at which point Letts relented and both of them appeared in suitable overalls. John gently reminds Letts of this incident during the Silurians commentary, but he effects to forget, and during the episode including the scene, she is absent from the commentary team, so it isn’t brought up again. But it does serve to illustrate the new production team’s lack of interest in developing a strong female character.

Something nasty in the hay loft - The Silurians
But Liz remained a breed apart from other Who companions, before or since. Perhaps Lalla Ward's Romana is the one with whom she shares most affinity. In The Silurians commentary, during a scene in which one of the reptilian monsters creeps up on her character in a hay loft in which it has been hiding out, John remarks ‘here come my one scream’. It is indeed the only time that she was required to display and vocalise terror. Her brief reactive yelp was also made distant by the fact that we were viewing the incident through the prismatic point-of-view perspective of the wounded Silurian, whose heavy, rasping breathing was foregrounded on the soundtrack, muting all other noise. Liz soon recovers from her encounter, having been dealt a glancing blow by lizard claw, and is able to give a calm and rational description of the creature: ‘like a repetile, but it walked upright like a man’. This scene apart, she is rarely isolated in situations of peril or threat. There is a long chase sequence in the hybrid of SF and spy thriller The Ambassadors of Death (due for release on dvd later this year, with a commentary already recorded featuring both John and Nicholas Courtney), in which she is pursued by two thuggish goons. She gives them a good run for their money (and the HAVOC stunt men were apparently impressed by her efforts) before it all ends in a run across the narrow wooden boards of a walkway above a weir, from the handrail of which she was required to hang before being pulled up by her pursuers. As John points out in the UNIT Family documentary extra on the Inferno dvd, this wasn’t bad for someone who was three months pregnant at the time. She manages to keep her broad-brimmed felt hat on all the while too. This stylish piece of headwear, combined with her white mini-skirt and white boots, makes her look like she should be fronting some psych-pop or folk band in the Pentangle mould. It’s an association enhanced by the jazzy flute piece (presumably a bit of library music) used on the soundtrack of this serial, which diverges from the customary Radiophonics or the blend of orchestral and electronic sounds used by regular composer Dudley Simpson. Indeed, the feeling that Liz and the first series as a whole are still somehow rooted in the 60s is furthered by the use of Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well in the plastic factory scenes in Spearhead from Space.

'Evil' Liz - Inferno
In John’s last story, Inferno, she was able to enjoy playing variations on her character by portraying Liz’s shadow self in the parallel Earth into which the Doctor stumbles and from which he must escape in order to save the world in which the Liz that we know exists. Here, she is a security officer in a Britain which has fallen under the rule of a fascist dictatorship at some point in the 30s or 40s. ‘Evil’ Liz is under the command of the Brigadier’s mirror-world counterpart, a bellowing bully with brigandish eye-patch. John plays this other Liz as a tight-lipped, unquestioning servant of the regime. But something of the Liz the Doctor knows is still present, an essential core which allows him to appeal to her. He tells her that in his world she is a scientist, and asks whether she had ever longed to become one herself. This has a definite effect on her, the element of scientific curiosity being such an ineradicable element of her nature. The alternate Brigadier, interestingly enough, turns into a whimpering coward prepared to sacrifice an entire world (or an even greater swathe of the continuum of existence) in order to save his own skin. The spark of selfless nobility in Liz which has remained alight beneath the hardened carapace built up through years of compliance to power (according to the needs of personal survival), and which the Doctor has re-ignited, causes her to act. She enables the Doctor to escape by shooting the Brigadier in the back, a brutal and extreme expression of her counterpart’s intuitive anti-militarism.

Stroll with the family UNIT - The Ambassadors of Death
As soon as Letts and Dicks were in charge, the writing was on the wall for Liz. She was effectively caught between the shifting of old and new guards, who happened to intersect for a brief moment at the beginning of this new era for Doctor Who. John remembers in the UNIT Family documentary on the Inferno dvd that it was during the party following the completion of that story and the series which it concluded that Letts came up to her and told her that they would be looking for a new companion, and that her contract would not be renewed. She reflected that she could have responded by telling him that she was by this stage four months pregnant, and it been increasingly difficult for her to hide it. The decision was thus, in some ways, convenient for her. She displays a certain amount of hurt at the rejection implicit in the decision, but had the good grace over the years not to make a big deal out of it. Letts, for his part, has always explained his choice to get rid of Liz by pointing to the need for a companion for the Doctor who would need to have things explained to them. This would provide a convenient way in which younger (or slower) viewers could also have such explanations fed to them. It’s effectively an admission that the more adult direction which Sherwin and Bryant had envisaged for the show’s new format would not be pursued, and is also a little condescending towards the audience (be they young or mature). It’s certainly an outlook which current producer Stephen Moffat wouldn’t endorse. John allows a little of her disappointment to show through when she recalls later reading a comment from Letts in a Doctor Who magazine suggesting that Liz Shaw had to go because she was too clever by half. Having said which, it should be added that Letts and Dicks formed an excellent creative partnership, and presided over what is probably my favourite Doctor Who era. Nobody’s perfect, and the shortcomings alluded to were part of the prevalent and ingrained attitudes of the period. The duo, with their otherwise liberal outlook, were fairly representative of the major disparity between radical 60s ideals of creating a new social order and those same radicals’ expectations that women would essentially fulfil the same supportive roles as they had done before.

The last laugh - Inferno
Liz’s replacement was introduced in another story featuring the menace of the plastic animating Nestene Consciousness, The Auton Invasion. Katy Manning’s Jo Grant also meets the Doctor in the laboratory which he has, by now, made his own. The parallels are indeed quite marked. There’s none of the sense of fellow feeling, of a meeting of minds with this meeting however. Jo distracts the Doctor, causes his experiment to catch fire, and destroys it utterly by putting it out with a fire extinguisher. A sensible move, you would have thought, but the Doctor’s having none of it. ‘Dealt with it? You’ve ruined it’, he splutters, and proceeds to decry her as a ‘ham-fisted bun vendor’. When she tells him, with eager to please enthusiasm, ‘I’m your new assistant’, he responds with a rudely dismissive ‘oh no’. He demands someone with qualifications equivalent to Liz’s, before the Brigadier puts him firmly in his place, telling him ‘what you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are. Miss Grant will fulfil that function admirably’. In other words, she’s a secretary, not a fellow scientist. Of course, Jo would develop considerably beyond such parameters, and display great resourcefulness, bravery and moral strength. But, initially at least, she was a step backwards in terms of creating strong, intelligent female characters. Caroline John had her own ideas of what Liz would have done next. ‘She’d have gone back to her work’, she says, without hesitation or doubt, resuming that important research she was whisked away from at Cambridge, and glad to be away from the idiocies of the military mind. She would appear very briefly in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, albeit in rather desultory fashion (alongside other former companions) as a siren phantom. Her husband, Geoffrey Beevers, also had a brief moment of Doctor Who glory, playing the Master in The Keeper of Traken, although he was largely unrecognisable beneath the make-up representing the disfigured flesh of his failed regeneration. John herself played many further roles, both on stage and on TV. I’ve recently seen her in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes story The Dying Detective, in which she plays the weary, irritable wife of a loud and gluttonous boor; and in Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, in which she sympathetically plays the supportive mother in law of the fated solicitor. In her early career she also appeared down this way (in Exeter) on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in a 1967 production of Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, presumably in the role played in Richard Lester’s 1965 film adaptation by Rita Tushingham. John is always marvellous on the dvd commentaries of the Doctor Who episodes she appeared in (she’s not present on Inferno, sadly). She makes a particularly entertaining double act with Nicholas Courtney, with whom she shares the commentary on Spearhead From Space. They obviously got on very well, Courtney affectionately referring to her as Carrie, and they engage in much amusing and unaffected banter. John is generous in allowing others the space to speak, and at times almost seems to be acting as a moderator. She’s all but interviewing Courtney at times, prompting anecdotes and asking him about aspects of his character. The final shot we see of Liz is also the shot on which Inferno fades out. The Brigadier and the Doctor have walked off, engaged in bickering interplay, the Doctor attempting to withdraw a remark made in the belief that he was about to depart in his newly fixed Tardis, and the Brig intent on reminding him of its precise wording (‘pompous, self-opinionated idiot’ I believe you said). Liz looks on with indulgent humour, shaking with hearty, unaffected laughter. It’s a lovely, warm image with which to bid her, and Caroline John, farewell.


Kevin Rands said...

Lovely bio of Liz Shaw. Does anyone know of any web-based/printed accounts of Caroline John's life and career, other than the brief recent one in The Guardian.

Jez Winship said...

Cheers Kevin. I don't really know of any accounts which go into her life in any great detail. There's a bit on the Doctor Who news site here: but other than that, very little.
She does a commentary on the Ambassadors of Death dvd, which is coming out in October, and maybe there'll be a bit about her in the extras on that.