United Kingdom Prom 3, Doctor Who Prom: Music by Gold, Bizet, Bach, Copland, Debussy et al. Various artists and presenters, London Philharmonic Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Foster (conductor and orchestrator). Royal Albert Hall, London 15.7.2013 (JPr)
At the last of these Doctor Who Proms in 2010 I began my review by explaining how ‘I knew this was a different sort of Prom from the moment I sat down and heard a very young voice asking “Is that an alien behind the Tardis?” The soothing reply from the accompanying adult was “No dear, that is just a bust of Sir Henry Wood, he was the man who thought up these concerts.” Many will now think I am making this up but it is the truth that I sat down for this year’s celebration of all things Doctor Who and heard a mature male voice asking his female partner ‘Is that Davros up there at the back of the platform?’ (For the uninitiated, Davros is the creator of the Doctor’s deadliest enemies, the Daleks.) A similarly soothing, conciliatory voice answered ‘No dear, it’s Sir Henry Wood and these are his concerts.’
On 23 November 1963 the quintessentially British Sci-Fi programme Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC TV. The observant amongst my readers will realise that Series 7 of its reinvention (perhaps regeneration would be more appropriate?) that began in 2005 and recently ended on a stunning cliffhanger has set things up nicely for the 50th anniversary episode that will be broadcast in November. The Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, came on stage to remind the audience that what we are currently seeing is a direct continuation of ‘classic’ (as it now known) Doctor Who that ran from 1963 to 1989 and still features the mysterious alien Time Lord, a time-traveller and the last of his line from the distant planet Gallifrey, known as ‘The Doctor’. As Peter ‘call me number 5’ Davison said, many in the early Sunday morning audience were not born when this was on TV – and neither were some of their parents!
The Doctor travels in his time- and space-ship, the Tardis, which for reasons too complicated to go into – but involving the failure of something called the ‘chameleon circuit’ – still, even after 50 years, has the exterior of a 1960’s blue police box. The Doctor travels with companions, facing various menacing aliens and more often than not saving Planet Earth – to which he frequently returns and has a peculiar affection for – from global destruction.
Whether they were old enough or not to have any memories of the 1960s series apart from on DVD, the young families (including mothers and fathers) were in a world of their own as they encountered the rhino-headed Judoon, the tentacle-faced Ood, the cyborg Cybermen, faceless Whispermen, ghoulish Vampire Girls, reptile-like Silurian Warriors, the Edvard Munch-inspired, the Silence, and a giant Ice Warrior (my personal favourite) that is another reptilian humanoid. Most of these entered down the stairs through the stalls or came up from below the arena to walk through the Promenaders. Often parents and guardians would push their small charges in front of these characters to take photos or shake their hands fervently wishing, as I have also written before, that they could be in the shoes of their son, daughter, niece or nephew’ just for a brief moment.
Some of us, regardless of our recorded age, have never completely grown up – and why should we? Those Saturdays when I grew up in the 1960s meant a first team or reserve football game at Spurs and then I rushed home for Doctor Who on the TV at around 6pm. Those were the days before DVD recorders; now it can be programmed into my Sky+ box and in my own time I can continue to enjoy one constant from childhood … even though I can’t afford football matches anymore! As part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations a docudrama by Mark Gatiss (An Adventure in Time and Space)will also be shown later this year and will tell the story of Doctor Who’s creation. The First Doctor, William Hartnell, was a grumpy, frail-but-tough, white-haired grandfather, travelling through time with his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, played by Carole Anne Ford who, now in her seventies, was a surprise guest at this Prom. This was a welcome acknowledgment from the Doctor Who of the present of the programme’s early days, as she recalled herself, ‘nearly 50 years ago’ when she first encountered the Daleks. She reminisced how they were told ‘not to use them as bumper cars – as the budget would not run to new ones.’
As a neat plot device to keep the series going the Doctor has ‘regenerated’ ten times and the eleventh Doctor is played by the youthful Matt Smith. Hartnell was the youngest of the incarnations but the oldest actor to play him – until John Hurt’s mysterious ‘Doctor’ figure made a brief appearance at the end of the recent ‘new’ Series 7. At the other end of the age scale Matt Smith has been the youngest Doctor Who and he has announced he will leave the programme in this year’s Christmas Special.
As before the Tardis (don’t spoil my fun by telling me it is not real) was parked in front of Sir Henry Wood and the organ and those myriad creatures stalked the Prommers, often accompanied by Murray Gold’s music from the show played by the valiant BBC National Orchestra of Wales – known as the Doctor Who ‘house band’ because the show is filmed in Cardiff. The London Philharmonic Choir and soloists (tenor Allen Clayton, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and young singer Kerry Ingram) hummed, ahh-ed or lahlah-ed Gold’s melodies with often stratospheric vocalisation and suitable synchronisation (under the baton of Ben Foster, orchestrator of much of the music) while dramatic or emotional scenes from recent series and earlier ‘classic’ ones were projected on screens around the Royal Albert Hall.
To be truthful, much of the music was not that memorable or very different from any other of the excerpts played. There were, however, two stunning short new creations from senior and junior ‘Create a Soundtrack’ competition winners to short scenes from last year’s Christmas Special; these were rather different to what ‘we’ regular viewers are familiar with and it was great to hear the ‘Classic’ Doctor Who Medley arranged by Mark Ayers that celebrated the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and a whole band of composers involved throughout Doctor Who’s initial 26-year run. Murray Gold wrote a new Song for Fifty as a tribute to the Time Lord and his 50-year adventure boldly going where no one has gone before … or am I confusing Sci-Fi shows here? It ended with more of his typical swelling bombastic triumphalism to the words ‘Happy Birthday. Doctor. You’ – sorry, but even an ardent Doctor Who fan like me found this a toe-curling embarrassment.
As initial hosts there were Neve McIntosh as Madame Vestra (a female Silurian warrior) and her ‘baked potato headed’ Sontaran associate, Strax (Dan Starkey), who threatened to teach the musicians behind him ‘the rudiments of Sontaran battle music’ and chanted ‘Son-Tar-Ra, Son-Tar-Ra!’ Eventually there was the moment everyone was waiting for with an appearance from Matt Smith and the Doctor’s current companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Firstly in a pre-recorded segment they were seen outside the Royal Albert Hall bickering that the Doctor had forgotten to buy tickets for the concert but how he could use a ‘Hyperspace Body Swap’ ticket to exchange places with two people in the audience – the only problem is that those they were replacing would materialise a few streets away – naked. They then stood up, entertainingly, amongst the orchestra and the Doctor announced: ‘If Ludwig Van could see me now – he would be disappointed’. Conductor Ben Foster had been given a ‘Sonic Baton’ to thwart the Daleks that came onto the platform for the ‘First There Were Daleks’ music from Series 4 and 7 but when a Dalek (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) intoned ‘What – is – that – strange – things – you – are – carrying’ he realised he had left it on the music stand. Amusingly, the Dalek responded to the conductor’s antics by announcing ‘Overacting detected!’ This was all great fun.
At times the screens went blank and the young audience was left to appreciate some mercifully short purely classical items and at these moments the interests of the youngsters waned. Though there was a context to all this music, such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (orchestrated by Stokowski) and Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, that had been used in 1985 and 1977 respectively: we did not see anything and should have been shown excerpts from these episodes. This minor quibble apart – and whilst not totally forgiving all concerned for that dreadful Song For Fifty – as a rousing rendition of the legendary theme music in its current version brought the event to a close, everyone in the Royal Albert Hall, including me, rose to their feet in tribute to Doctor Who’s enduring appeal – I doubt it will last another 50 years but enjoy it while you can.
For more about the BBC Proms 2013 visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms.