It was the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993. An evening that Nicholas Briggs, in a 2015 editing suite advises, featured two special moments – an announcement and an anniversary.
Hence, I’m pushing aside any thoughts of talking about what’s been on telly this week (Great British Menu, Bake Off, New Tricks… pah!) and simply sticking on – streaming in fact – the recently completed Myth Makers #118: Virgin Publishing (available to buy or rent from Time Travel TV).
In doing so, I am obliged to provide lots in the way of context.
First up, what is Myth Makers? As succinct as I can do it: A series of semi-professional straight-to-video documentaries about Doctor Who produced by Reeltime Pictures (mostly in the 1990s), and now made available online. Secondly, the Virgin Publishing side of the colon divide. It’s a seemingly self-evident reference – however it’s not. This is specifically focusing on the company’s imprint of original Doctor Who novels (New Adventures) which ran from 1991 to 1997.
Also in attendance were a camera person and the aforementioned Briggs, interviewing from behind the lens. “We never completed that Myth Maker – until now!” he says in 2015 with great potency. He is a man adapt at wrangling this kind of mediocrity. And I honestly don’t mean that unkindly. The production is really a corporate video for Doctor Who nerds – but what a brilliant thing to be! – and he knows how to jolly it along. “The celebration didn’t go quite according to plan…” he teases, as we cut to a low-jeopardy incident where burnt-down birthday cake candles set off a fire alarm.
The crux of the evening is Peter Davill-Evans’ speech to his troops. Even more context, I’m afraid: 1993 marked four years since Doctor Who had ceased production on television, and pretty much the point when people were beginning to face the possibility it was never to return. Taking the power in these uncertain times were this group of young creatives, writing new Who stories in their university computer rooms. They had become the show.
Well, not quite. There was a little frustration in that they couldn’t take complete control. In his speech, PD-E laments, in a rhetorical question, “Can we put Sylvester McCoy’s body in cold storage for a while and have another Doctor?”
The main thrust of the event – as the cocktail sausages and ketchup go around – is the announcement of the supplemental Missing Adventures line, devoted to past Doctors. And then Briggs gets to work, pressing the authors, who are captured in naïve, greying Betacam, on various issues. Talking about his dearest Doctor Who memory, one of the show’s future script editors, Gary Russell3 recalls an encounter with Tom Baker at the BBC in 1976: “And I also got him to sign my Genesis of the Daleks novel, which I’ve still got.” Other future-people are also in the room. Paul Cornell talks with the pleasant lilt of a boy who learnt emphasis from BBC continuity announcements, and admits he was once scared of plant life. And we’re absolutely in the moment for Gareth Roberts; this very afternoon he delivered his manuscript for the novel Tragedy Day.
To the side, eating wax-less bits of cake, are co-writers Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore. The latter flips his sunglasses up and down and plays to the camera with unease. It’s as if he’s the only one here who truly doubts the evening could be considered worthy of documenting. He’s sort of right. It’s really a works do, nothing more. Except… it’s Doctor Who-related so I want it all. I want more of those scattershot bits of conversation captured in covering shots. Terrance Dicks telling Marc Platt, “This is gonna cost a packet…” Rebecca Levene (then assistant to PD-E) conjuring something: “And a mud-replica of Ace, oozing out…”
No one would ever sensibly hold this Reeltime Pictures production up as an example of dynamism in filmmaking. But it does capture a kind of dynamism in imagining. A modestly heady evening, with ideas that still have some purchase today, being exchanged in a pub that no longer exists. Plus Australian author Kate Orman using the word ‘diskette’.
Within this storm, two constants – Nicholas Briggs and Peter Darvill-Evans. Briggs, of course, is the humble spear-carrier but, in interviews from 1993 and 2015, the other proves why he was right for Doctor Who high office. Young PD-E tells us, “I answered an advert in The Guardian” and that the book range was the “rump of WH Allen”. The older PD-E says “I made the assumption [the programme] was never coming back” and that he was lucky enough to tap into a “diaspora” of talent – a word I’ve only ever read, never heard. “I don’t think I can claim we kept Doctor Who in the public eye,” he adds, “but we did sustain some people and sustain an idea for that decade.”
It’s wholly improbable that, on the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993, someone thought it a worthwhile endeavour to film the Virgin New Adventures authors sharing around plates. It’s even more improbable that 22 years later, someone (very possibly the same someone) then thought it worthwhile to dig out the tape and finish off the documentary. But at the periphery of Doctor Who – and we’re right out at the gates here – wholly impropable things have often taken place.
- 15 St Giles High Street, London – the place then became a gargoyle-encrusted heavy metal hang-out called The Intrepid Fox, before ceding completely to Crossrail development… and that is indeed how we measure out the passing of time ↩
- Who was to become a tax inspector ↩
- Leaning over the back of a wicker chair that brings to mind the seal of Rassilon ↩