Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson.jpg

Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.


This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…



Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s


Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller The Day of the Jackal.

How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter OF Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unintelligently): “Why run n the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978 if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those harts and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties, perhaps guiding the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis Who Governs Britain? election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto underperform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell particularly portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes they are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius with the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence” for example covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.


Is there Life After Who?


At thirty, Matt Smith is the youngest ex-Doctor ever. He was generally well liked as the Doctor, acted in political drama Party Animals beforehand and played gay writer Christopher Isherwood in one off drama Christopher and his Kind in 2011 and 1948 Olympic Games drama Bert and Dickie last year.

But what about all the previous Doctors?

How did they find life after leaving the Tardis?

Is there life after Who?

William Hartnell

Life: 1908-1975. 1st Doctor: 1963-1966

Before: Hartnell appears in the title role in the  first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, crops up in Peter Sellers’ The Mouse That Roared and comes to a nasty end courtesy of Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock.

During: Hartnell was the first to establish the role but was forced to retire on health grounds. He died in 1975.

During and after: Despite a career stretching back to the 1920s, Hartnell will always be primarily remembered as the First Doctor.


Patrick Troughton

Life: 1920-1987. 2nd Doctor: 1966-1969.

Before: A Second World War veteran and an experienced character actor appearing in everything from Z-Cars to Jason of the Argonauts.

During: Troughton’s stint is fondly remembered as the man who saved the series once Hartnell retired but he quit after being overworked by a punishing schedule.

After: Troughton was far more than just the Second Doctor. His most famous non-Who role was as the unfortunate priest in horror classic The Omen. He was a regular on TV (A Family at War, the Box of Delights) before his death in 1987. His sons David and Michael are distinguished actors today.


Jon Pertwee

Life: 1919-1996. 3rd Doctor: 1969-1974.

Before: A veteran of comedies such as The Navy Lark and small roles in Sixties Carry on films, Pertwee was seriously considered for the role of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army before Arthur Lowe got it. By coincidence, Jon’s cousin Bill Pertwee was cast as Warden Hodges in the same show,

During: The first Doctor Who to appear in colour. Boosted the series after it was once again left at low ebb by Patrick Troughton’s departure. He is still a favourite amongst older Who fans.

After: Pertwee is as famous for his role in the sinister children’s series Worzel Gummidge and for voicing Spotty on the cartoon Superted.  He died in 1996. His son Sean Pertwee is known for roles in the films Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon and slightly more macho roles than his father.


Tom Baker

Born: 1934, age 79. Fourth Doctor: 1974-1981.

Before: Like Troughton, Baker crops up in a Sinbad film.
During: The famously eccentric Baker played the Doctor for longer than anyone else. He is usually ranked alongside David Tennant as the most popular of the Time Lords.

After: He has one of the most recognisable voices in the UK and his narration on comedy series Little Britain was crucial to its success. Despite numerous roles (Blackadder II, The Life and Loves of A She Devil) it may be that Baker’s eccentricity have denied him true stardom. He remains much better known for the Doctor than anything else.


Peter Davison.

Born: 1951, age 62. Fifth Doctor: 1981-1984.

Before: Best known as vet Tristan Farnham in James Herriot TV drama All Creatures Great and Small. He was also the “dish of the day” who briefly appears in TV’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was married to Sandra Dickinson who played Trillian in that series.  The couple wrote and performed the songs on children’s show Button Moon.

During: Davison had a tough act to follow in Tom Baker, particularly as Davison was the youngest ever Doctor (by some way) at the time. But he was a popular Doctor in the end.

After: Had a healthy career in the Eighties on All Creatures Great and Small, A Very Peculiar Practice (alongside David Troughton) and remains a likeable presence on TV today. Davison Is also the father in law of David Tennant strengthening his ties to the Who empire still further.


Colin Baker

Born: 1943, age 70. Sixth Doctor: 1984-1986.

Before: Baker is the only previous actor (before Peter Capaldi) to have appeared in a previous episode of the series as another character. He played Colonel Maxil in the 1983 Peter Davison story Arc of Infinity.

During: An unhappy spell as the Doctor. Baker was so annoyed after being sacked that he refused to participate in the traditional regeneration sequence forcing Sylvester McCoy to use a curly wig and hide under special effects. Some have suggested a link between Baker’s firing and his first wife Liza Goddard’s relationship with BBC 1 controller Michael Grade.

After: Baker was recently on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!


Sylvester McCoy

Born: 1943, age 69. Seventh Doctor:

Before: A regular presence on children’s TV in the Eighties appearing in Eureka (a sort of Horrible Histories about the origins of inventions), Jigsaw and Tiswas.

During: Initially criticised for being too comedic, McCoy was Doctor when the show was cancelled in 1989. Few blame this solely on him, however. The show was in decline throughout the Eighties.

After: Enjoyed perhaps his biggest role ever this year as the eccentric Radagast in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.


Paul McGann

Born: 1959, age 53.

Eighth Doctor: 1996.

The most famous of the McGann brothers, he was the unnamed “I” in Withnail and I (1986), World War I deserter Percy Toplis in The Monocled Mutineer.

The 1996 TV movie was a disastrous flop. Few blame McGann for this although his career probably hasn’t benefited from talking the role. He remains a busy actor though.


Christopher Eccleston

Born: 1964. age 49.

Ninth Doctor: 2005

Before: A well known name from roles in Cracker  and Our Friends In The North on UK TV in the Nineties and film parts in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave,  as the rebellious Earl of Essex in Elizabeth and the villain in Gone In Sixty Seconds (alongside Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie).

During: Eccleston’s Doctor was popular and successfully revived the series in 2005. But Eccleston seems never to have intended to be a long running Doctor and announced he would step down after one series following the screening of his well received first episode.

After: Has played John Lennon  in Lennon Naked on TV and remains buy in film and TV but it’s hard to tell if he benefitted from playing the Doctor or not.


David Tennant

Born: 1971, age 42.

Tenth Doctor: 2005-2010.

Before: Best known for his roles in TV’s Blackpool and Casanova before being cast as the Doctor at about the same time as being cast as Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

After: One of the most popular Doctors, Tennant has benefitted from the role more than any other actor. He is now a hugely acclaimed star of stage (particularly Shakespearian roles) and screen (Broadchurch, The Politician’s Husband, Munich air disaster drama United! and many more).  Yet to achieve film star status, he is nevertheless hugely successful and has escaped typecasting.



The Regeneration game: who will be the new Doctor?

ImageMatt Smith’s replacement as the Doctor will be announced in a special programme broadcast on Sunday. But with the show enjoying its fiftieth birthday celebrations in November, who will get the top job?

It is actually virtually impossible to say but here are a few guidelines based on past regenerations…

It is unlikely to be anyone famous.

Be warned: even after the new Doctor is announced on Sunday, your first question on hearing the name in question may well be appropriate: who???

For if history has taught us anything about the Doctor Who selection proves, it is that generally less famous names tend to get it. As with James Bond, those casting seem to prefer seasoned relatively familiar actors for the role rather than household names or out and out unknowns. Very famous and successful actors are also less likely to want to be tied down by the role.

Who, after all, knew Matt Smith well, when he was selected as the youngest ever Doctor (at 25) in 2010?

The actor was a familiar face to fans of TV’s critically acclaimed drama Party Animals (which also featured rising stars Andrea Risborough and Andrew Buchan). But that series was never a ratings hit and few had Smith down as a potential timelord.

The same might be said of David Tennant who was booked as the second of the new Doctors in 2005 once Christopher Eccleston quit soon after his first episode had been screened. Tennant was making a name for himself in shows such as Dennis Potter-eque musical drama Blackpool (alongside future Who co-star David Morrissey). He had also starred, more tellingly, in Casanova, a series written by Russell T Davies, who had, of course, revived the science fiction franchise. Tennant was immediately mooted as a possible successor to Eccleston. The role has probably boosted Tennant’s career more than any other actor. He is now a household name and has escaped typecasting.

Christopher Eccleston , who was picked to star in the series on its return in 2004 was, in fact, more famous than most new Doctors, perhaps explaining why he relinquished the role so quickly. He had already starred in Our Friends In The North and on the big screen in Gone In Sixty Seconds.

Yet he was still less famous than Alan Davies, Richard E Grant and Eddie Izzard: all names thrown into the rumour mill as possible Doctors the time.

It is unlikely to be anyone who has already been in the series already.

Oddly, a consistent feature of speculation is that someone who has already appeared in the series before will be picked as the next Doctor.

This explains why names such as David Morrissey (who did play a sort of alternative Doctor in one Christmas Special, Paterson Joseph (best known as Johnson in Peep Show)  and Russell Tovey are sometimes mentioned.

Even more bizarrely, John Simm, who played the Master was strongly mooted last time as a successor to David Tennant have been the likes of Alex Kingston, Billie Piper and Jenna-Louise Coleman.

Ignoring the fact, only Morrissey, Simm and Joseph on this list would really fit the bill anyway (and the first two were probably too successful to want it), I’m prepared to bet having appeared in the series before would generally count against you being picked as the new Doctor.

Although it should be noted Freema Agyeman was picked as assistant in 2006 soon after playing a small role in the show.

A female Doctor?

This has never happened before but this is the fiftieth anniversary year so why not? The Daily Mail has also stated its opposition to this occurring which seems as good a reason for having a female in the Tardis as any.

The element of surprise

Several plausible names have been mooted in recent days:

Peter Capaldi:  Probably a little bit too famous for the role since The Thick of It and with too much to lose. Recent Doctors have tended to be younger too (he is 55) although he would doubtless be great in the role.

Ben Whishaw: In theory ideal, but perhaps unlikely as his film career is taking off.

Ben Daniels: Possible.

Rory Kinnear: Possible.

Alex Kingston: No.

Jenna-Louise Coleman: Unlikely.

I doubt it will be any of these, however. The one certainty here is that the new Doctor will be a total surprise.

 And even that isn’t certain.


The 11 Doctors

1. William Hartnell (1963-1966)

2. Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)

3. Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

4. Tom Baker (1974-1981)

5. Peter Davison  (1982-1984)

6. Colin Baker (1984-1986)

7. Sylvester McCoy (1987-1996)

8. Paul McGann (1996)

9. Christopher Eccleston (2005)

10. David Tennant (2005-2010)

11. Matt Smith (2010 – 2013)


James Bond vs Doctor Who


Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was widely seen as a flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T. Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but never exactly famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austin Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in years.
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame, John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky Hiutchence, a bearded University drop-out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend “Geordie” Peacock, who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

Daniel Craig - New James Bond movie Casino Royale